Driving out McCracken Pike today, you’ll come to a turreted Victorian-style castle that looks as if it would be more at home in the majestic Highlands of Scotland than along Glenn’s Creek, a sleepy trickle in the Kentucky Bluegrass.
The castle’s stone tower puts one in mind of a Sir Walter Scott novel where brave knights carried their ladies’ hankies in jousting tournaments when they weren’t carrying spears and shields on the battlefield.
But had you traveled down the Pike a decade or so ago, you would have witnessed an entirely different scene. Instead of an imposing castle, you would have seen a ruined building with caved-in roofs and broken or boarded-up windows, and vegetation so dense as to almost engulf what was left of the structure.
Rather than a medieval castle straight out of Sir Walter Scott, it resembled a decaying Southern Gothic mansion straight out of William Faulkner.
That all changed in 2014. That was the year Will Arvin first saw photographs of the Old Taylor Distillery, opened in 1887 by E.H. Taylor, Jr., who for the next 23 years distilled Kentucky’s famed elixir until Prohibition forced its closure in 1920.
In the years following Prohibition, the distillery changed hands several times, falling into more disrepair every year. But after Arvin paid a visit to the abandoned property, he decided to purchase and restore the once prominent distillery. He knew he had his work cut out for him.
After a couple of years spent assembling a crackerjack team who shared his vision, he spent the next four years turning that vision into reality. Castle & Key Distillery officially opened to the public in September 2018, with honored guests getting a taste of the first spirit distilled since the restoration.
Alas, it wasn’t bourbon. As bourbon requires four years to age before it can be released, and Arvin was anxious to have a product to show, Castle & Key’s first spirit was gin.
Its first aged spirit, Restoration Rye, came out next in 2020, and in 2022, its Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon became the first bourbon produced at the historic distillery in nearly five decades.
The opening of Castle & Key had an immediate impact on almost every level.
It was a hit with Central Kentuckians who had been watching the distillery’s progress with fascination for four years.
It was a hit with national design publications which praised not only the newly spiffed up castle, but Roman-style bathhouse and peristyle as well.
They also gave high marks to the elegant décor featuring oriental rugs and brass and copper accents from interior decorator Donna Winfield, and the formal sunken gardens re-created from the original garden by noted landscape designer Jon Carloftis.
FYI: the showiest time for the gardens is summer when the hydrangeas are in bloom and the scent of lemon verbena and rosemary fills the air.
It definitely proved to be a hit with the spirits media, primarily because of its first master distiller, Marianne Barnes (since left), who was the first female master distiller in the commonwealth since Prohibition.
But most of all, it was a hit with the drinking public.
“Today, we produce 36,000 barrels a year,” says head blender Brett Connors, who has been at the distillery since 2016. “That’s predominately whiskeys (rye and bourbon), but we also produce gin and vodka from scratch.”
Visitors who sign up for a tour and tasting will get a mixture of these spirits, along with some pretty juicy anecdotes (there is allegedly more than one ghost still lingering here). They might even get to meet the resident cat, Rick-Key, whose name is a combination of rickhouse and key, and “who pretty much has the run of the place,” says Connors.
Following the official tour and tasting, guests are invited to roam the 113-acre grounds, so don’t miss the quarter-mile botanical trail with its local plants and magnolia trees.
Another favorite stop is the keyhole-shaped Springhouse (housing the distillery’s water source) with its completely restored chandelier and elegant columns.
Guests can take home souvenirs of their experience from the Boiler Room, a carefully curated gift shop which stocks everything from glassware and barware to signature apparel and home goods…and of course, the distillery’s spirits.
“We like to describe a visit to Castle & Key as a truly immersive bourbon experience, as it might have been in the days of E.H. Taylor, Jr.,” says Connors.
With that in mind, he says future plans will go beyond having just conventional distillery tours to also include garden tours, history tours and architecture tours.
“The garden, the history and the architecture are as much a part of our story as the spirits,” says Connors.