It’s taken four years, millions of dollars and countless effort by thousands of men and women, but after sitting dormant for more than 45 years, the Old Taylor Distillery in Millville, Ky., now called Castle & Key, is set to open to the public on Wednesday, Sept. 19.
Insider was invited to the media opening Wednesday to experience the full tour, talk with Master Distiller Marianne Eaves and founding partners Will Arvin and Wes Murry, and witness the miraculous renovation of the 130-year-old, 114-acre property that contains not only a castle but the world’s largest rick house.
The distillery was a grand vision by the ostentatious Col. E.H. Taylor, a bourbon distiller from the 1800s who championed for an authentic product with the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897. He built and worked at several distilleries during his career, including the site that now hosts the Buffalo Trace Distillery (which produces the E.H. Taylor brand of bourbon).
Taylor believed in the power of marketing, and he believed his bourbon was the best, so why not build a gaudy, European-style castle — complete with an elaborate spring house and sunken gardens — in the middle of Kentucky to show just how committed he was to his bourbon?
The Old Taylor Distillery was built in 1887, and Taylor welcomed guests from near and far to experience his distillery, making him one of the early pioneers of bourbon tourism.
Taylor died shortly after Prohibition started in the 1920s, and throughout the years, his Millville distillery was taken over by other distilling companies and eventually abandoned in 1972.
In 2014, Lexington businessmen Arvin and Murry decided to take a chance on the property — which so many before them had passed on — and try to resurrect the dilapidated, crumbling shell of a distillery.
The Key Then
Insider has met with Eaves several times throughout the last four years to get a glimpse of the massive restoration. We first talked with her in March of 2015, shortly after it was announced that she was leaving her position as Brown-Forman’s master taster to become master distiller for this new endeavor.
She knew it was a big leap in the industry, but it was a chance she was willing to take, Eaves said.
“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,” she told us in 2015. “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.”
We returned in June of that year to get a personal tour with Eaves, and construction was just getting underway. We scaled wobbly brick walls, dodged fallen rusty steel beams and peeked inside an ancient distillery that had succumbed to the elements of time and weather.
We visited again in 2017 to check in on the progress and sample early versions of the gin.
And in February of 2018, Insider traveled there again for the premiere of the bourbon documentary “Neat” and was treated to another tour where we got to witness the somewhat restored distillery that had been dusted off, reconstructed, roofed, paved and polished.
The Key Now
That brings us to the present day, and as media gathered around the quaint, key-shaped spring house on the property, the trio of Arvin, Murry and Eaves talked about what a significant occasion it was.
“It’s a big moment for us,” Murry said. “When we first came here, the place was pretty rough. Now, four-and-a-half years later, we’re standing in this beautiful structure getting the opportunity to tell you about that four-and-a-half year journey. It’s a very cool moment for all of us.”
Eaves seconded that sentiment.
“This is a huge moment for us — opening the distillery doors and letting people walk through the gate to see behind the curtain and what we’ve been working so hard for,” she said. “The distillery went from a post-apocalyptic war zone to a place Col. Taylor would be proud to open his doors to today.”
With that and a cheers of Castle & Key Restoration Gin & Tonic, we were off on one of the first official tours of the distillery, which now is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It should be noted that while Castle & Key has produced gin and vodka, its bourbons and whiskeys currently are aging. The oldest bourbon is not yet even two years old, so it’s got a few more years in the barrel. The distillery will produce three different brands for itself and also is contract distilling and aging for other companies.
The nearly two-hour tour went through each step of the distilling process, as well as through Col. Taylor castle; the sunken gardens that have been restored by famed landscape designer Jon Carloftis; the quarter-of-mile Botanical Trail, which is open to the public for free; an old train depot that now contains restrooms and, soon, a cafe; and the world’s largest rick house, which is 534 feet long and can hold 35,000 barrels.
Tour guide and distillery historian Brett Conners was extremely knowledgeable, personable and entertaining. He offered interesting tidbits along the way, including that when a highly regarded construction company first assessed the big rick house, they recommended it be torn down.
The Castle & Key team, however, wanted to salvage as much of the original components as they could, so they chose to spend the time — more than two years — and money to preserve it for another 100 years.
The design is a blend of old and new, with the new aesthetically looking as old as it can. Edison bulbs hang throughout the warm Visitor’s Center and tasting room, and hardware, including the bar top and cashier’s counter, is made of wood, steel, copper and brass elements.
Personal highlights of the tour for us included a look at the 140,000-gallon naturally fed spring that is still the water source for the distillery, the beautiful gardens and landscaping on site, and the two new Vendome Copper & Brass Works stills — one 24 inches in diameter, the other 32 inches — that ooze that brand new copper glow.
We won’t reveal all of Castle & Key’s secrets, especially those of the distillery cat named Rick, but if you’re a lover of bourbon, architecture, history or historic gardens, you should witness this place in person to really get the full experience.
Tours begin Wednesday, Sept. 19, and last about 90 minutes. The $30 ticket includes a full tour and tastings of the distillery’s current offerings — gin and vodka — as well as cocktails.
Below is a detailed look at our recent tour of Castle & Key Distillery.