It was a big decision, indeed. Perhaps one of the biggest and riskiest in the 28-year-old’s career so far.
Late last month, Marianne Barnes, Brown-Forman’s master taster of whiskey and bourbon, decided to leave her posh position working under master distiller Chris Morris for an opportunity to become master distiller of a new bourbon to be produced by two Kentucky businessmen at the former site of the Old Taylor Distillery near Frankfort.
It was a shock to many in the bourbon industry, as Barnes, it seemed, was in line to become Morris’ replacement when the time came for him to retire. But that won’t be anytime soon, as Morris is thriving in his position, helping grow Woodford Reserve and Old Forester during the bourbon resurgence.
On Monday, more details about Barnes’ new venture emerged, and she talked with Insider about her plans and goals for the new distillery, as well as what it means to her to be Kentucky’s first female master distiller.
Barnes says it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Brown-Forman, the liquor giant that gave the young U of L chemical engineering major an internship in 2009.
“The ability to use my engineering background and really get back down to the nitty gritty and start developing the process from the ground up was probably the most enticing thing for me,” says Barnes. “Really, everybody who has gone to the site — you go there and you feel the history of the place — it’s really hard not to fall in love with it.”
Barnes says she was approached by Lexington-area businessmen Will Arvin and Wesley Murry — who bought the historic, 83-acre Old Taylor Distillery in May 2014 — about coming aboard as master distiller of new bourbons and whiskies at the distillery.
She says this is an opportunity she couldn’t pass up, and that while resigning from Brown-Forman may have come as a surprise to most, she believes there are no hard feelings.
“Everyone was excited for me. It was a surprise — there hadn’t been any indication that I was looking for another job, because I wasn’t. This opportunity just came up,” she says. “(Arvin and Murry) are extremely passionate and excited and driven, and that kind of rubs off on you. It’s hard for it not to.”
Barnes, who landed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in January, knows being Kentucky’s first master distiller is a big deal, but it’s not the reason she jumped at the opportunity.
“If being a female in a male-dominated industry wasn’t exciting and a little surprising and cool, I don’t think I would be making headlines,” she says. “It’s a big deal, but it’s not one of the reasons I made the transition. I really wanted to be back in the process and make bourbon. I’m excited about it, though, if it encourages other women to give the field a try.”
The Old Taylor Distillery was built in 1887 in Millville and has been essentially abandoned since 1972. Founder Col. E.H. Taylor built a limestone castle on the grounds after being inspired by a trip to Europe, and he designed the distillery to be a destination for visitors, a notion far ahead of its time. Much of the distillery’s infrastructure, including some fermentation and distillation equipment, was salvageable, and Barnes says she hopes to be distilling as soon as possible. And while renovations are necessary, the team hopes to have a visitor’s center open by next spring.
Of course, it’ll be years before we see a bourbon come out of the distillery, but Barnes says she’s planning on making a gin — which doesn’t have to age — with botanicals grown on site.
“It starts like a vodka and is infused with botanicals, but we’ll have a different grain recipe — probably a whiskey, because we’d really like to make the whiskey drinker’s gin,” she says. “We’re actually going to be putting up a botanical trail on site, so we’ll be able to use botanicals grown at the distillery, which I’m extremely excited about.”
Barnes says that while she prefers a spicy flavor profile (heavy in rye) to her bourbons, the distillery will make many styles of both whiskies and bourbons. The first whiskey she’d like to make will honor Col. Taylor and will most likely be bottled in bond, a tribute to the pioneer distiller who championed for the authenticity of bourbon.
Bourbon enthusiasts will be quick to note that Buffalo Trace currently puts out the Col. E.H. Taylor Collection of small-batch bourbons, and Barnes acknowledges that the Old Taylor Distillery will be undergoing a name change, which they’re working on.
It’s hard not to notice Barnes’ passion for creating a bourbon from the ground up. Her vision of the future distillery is detailed, scientific and specific, and her fervor for it is infectious and immeasurable.
“I can’t wait to start making stuff,” she says. “I’ve already had fun figuring out what our process is going to be. I’m excited to start making relationships with the people who make the barrels, the people who will be providing us with yeast strains and the grains, and meeting the farmers. But I’m most excited about getting my lab set up so I can start distilling and testing.”
And speaking of farmers, Barnes hopes to use as much Kentucky-grown grains as possible, and she’s already been forging relationships with local farmers who are doing interesting things with experimental grains.
For now, Barnes looks forward to the day that first bourbon comes off the bottling line.
“That’s going to be so exciting — it’s hard to imagine how it’s going to feel,” she says. “I get a little bit of those butterflies just thinking about it.”