Kentucky Round 4 - The Scale of Things
I’ve always known that a whole lot of whiskey comes out of Kentucky, but I must admit, that before seeing the production for myself, I didn’t truly have a sense for the scale of things in America’s whiskey heartland. I’ve been to many large Scottish producers, seen dozens of craft distillers and frankly, nothing compares to the 24/7 run of bourbon out of Kentucky’s stills. Think about a producer like Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, or Jim Beam. There is at least one bottle or case from each of those distilleries in nearly every single bar, liquor store, and grocery store in the world. The infrastructure necessary to support that kind of distribution is gargantuan. Given the size of these modern factories that produce some of the best whiskey in the world, it was amazing to find that I was most blown away by the size and scope of a 130+ year old facility that is only partially restored to its former glory.
The Old Taylor Distillery was built in 1887 by Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr in Millville, Kentucky. One step onto the property and it’s clear, Mr. Taylor was not a humble man. Essentially built to glorify himself, this literal castle is a sprawling facility purpose built for churning out enormous quantities of whiskey, entertaining, and supporting Taylor’s image of himself. Taylor was a key personality in the early days of whiskey in America. He was in large part responsible for the passage of the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897. Some of the first legislation designed to product the American consumer. The other side of that story, that jives with Taylor himself, is that it protected his position in the whiskey industry as one of the few people set up sell whiskey that met the standards laid out in the landmark legislation. 10 years before the passage of the BIB Act, he built the first modern production facility that would really allow bourbon to take over as America’s spirit and lay the foundation for bourbon tourism that is growing so fast today.
Despite todays whisky boom and growth of that vision Taylor had over a century ago, the intervening decades had not been kind to the Taylor facility. The distillery changed hands multiple times and eventually fell into serious disrepair. Local kids partied in the Roman bath inspired spring house, windows were smashed, roofs caved in, buildings collapsed and floods filled the beautiful sunken gardens with mud. Tanks and water towers rusted, the river was filled with trash, and foundations of buildings cracked. By the time todays owners, the group behind Castle & Key Distillery, purchased the property, it was deemed by most to be far beyond saving. There was no way such a facility could be resurrected.
Fortunately for fans of great bourbon and its history, the visionary ownership group of C&K drew inspiration from the original founder and were not afraid to dream big. They set out to reestablish the property and bring it back into its former glory. Operating with the basic principle that anything that can be saved, salvaged, or repurposed will be. They set about one of the most complicated restoration projects you could envision. Not only did they need to construct a world class modern production facility, but they had to do it while restoring an historic site.
The results are truly astounding. A visit today reveals a Dali-esque landscape of melting buildings interspersed with stunningly restored gardens and bath house. Tanks have been cleaned and repaired, but only as production needs continue to grow. It’s a one step at a time process. If a piece of equipment is critical, like a still or fermentation tank, it gets priority. If it can wait, it will wait until it needs to be called into service. The marriage between the need for production and the desire to restore this property to a premier bourbon destination is wildly exciting. When digging out a field of mud for a new building, the excavator hit concrete. A careful excavation revealed a stunning sunken garden. Rather than continue to dig it up, the garden was restored and now makes a beautiful spot to sit down for a drink. The Romanesque bath house that served as a holding tank/spring for the distillery was pried from the jaws of destruction at the hands of decades of rowdy teens and today offers one of the most beautiful stopping points on the grounds. If you're just passing through and didn't have the foresight to book a full tour, just walk up to Counter 17 and order yourself a cocktail, local beer, or glass of wine and simply enjoy the park-like setting. (I'd highly recommend the G&T on tap made with Castle & Key's excellent gin). If you're really into the ultimate of bourbon experience, book your wedding in an old converted warehouse - it's one of the most romantic and rustic wedding spaces I've ever seen, if perhaps only for the couple who truly shares a passion for whisky.
While the conversion from condemned property to world-class destination is thrilling, the resumption of quality whisky production is at the heart of it all. Castle & Key is obviously laying down as much whiskey as they need for their own stocks, but they also offer one of the best contract juice propositions available. While some of their projects remain a secret, others, like Pinhook, are quite open about their partnership with Castle and Key for production of their future whiskey. And why wouldn't you be? Most consumers like to know where their whiskey is coming from, and if you have whiskey made at such an historic facility in the bottle, why not shout it from the rooftops? Here-in lies the most exciting aspect of Castle & Key to me. While they will certainly have their own style whiskey - which I am eagerly awaiting, they also are capable of researching, developing, and producing any style of whisky you'd like. Each production partner's recipe is customized to their needs meaning the breadth of quality brownwater coming from Castle & Key over the decades to come can and will be enormous. For someone like myself who loves to explore new whiskey flavors, this project heralds the good times to come.