A Visit to Castle and Key Distillery

If I may, I’d like to share with you my visit to the Castle and Key Distillery, located outside Frankfort Kentucky. Castle and Key is located about seven minutes past Woodford Reserve on McCracken Pike in the Historic Old Taylor Distillery. Much like their neighbor, Glenn’s Creek Distillery (located in the ruins of the Historic Old Crow Distillery about two minutes further down the road), Castle and Key is a craft distillery working to revitalize a historic property which had been abandoned by Jim Beam after they bought National Distillers in the 1980s.

In this case, the property was designed to be a showpiece of a distillery. Long before distillery tours were a form of tourism, Col. E.H. Taylor was bringing people to his castle-shaped distillery via train to show off what he had made. I’m guessing that he wanted to build his distillery into a work of art to impress upon people the value of the product that the distillery was making. It is a lesson that has been learned by many of the new distilleries that have popped up in recent years.

So not only was Col. Taylor the father of Bottled in Bond, but also of Bourbon Tourism. Let’s take a look at what is left today after the original distillery was bought and expanded by National Distillers, bought and abandoned by Jim Beam, and left to scrappers and the elements for thirty years before being purchased by the current occupants.

Upon entering the gate to the property, you immediately walk past the iconic castle. Inside the doorway is the distillery proper. There is a helpful gate guard to let you know that the gift shop where you report for your tour is not through that doorway, but past the castle, down the path and around the corner.

It is interesting to think that this property was in such bad shape that the current occupants purchased it for less than one million dollars. Of course, it took many more millions of dollars to remove the asbestos and trees from the buildings, excavate the property from flood debris and restore the buildings to the point that people could be in them.

Around the corner of the castle is a plaza that fronts the old boiler room (now the gift shop) and the old passenger train station (now the restrooms and the place you can purchase your cocktails). These are the public portions of the distillery. You can sit by the springhouse, walk down the botanical trail and enjoy a cocktail from Taylorton Station.

Of course, the other thing that the plaza leads to is the spring house. I’m sure you’ve all seen images of the spring house, even from before the renovations. This is as pretty as the photos lead one to believe. It is shaped like a keyhole and is one of the original springs on the property. According to our wonderful tour guide, you could empty it of water and allow it to refill twice per day should you want to.

Now you might think that Castle and Key, being a craft distillery, would be a small operation. The original owners thought that might be the case as well until they realized that all the original fermentation tanks could be easily cleaned and upgraded and reused. Each of the tanks holds over 11,000 gallons of fermenting mash and I saw a sign that called one of the tanks “No. 14.” As you might have guessed, all of a sudden this place had a different business model.

One side effect of all those fermenters is needing a much larger still, seen here. It comes from Vendome Copper & Brass and is quite large.

One of the interesting bits of trivia that our tour guide left us with was that, although everyone knew that Col. Taylor had two formal gardens on the property, no one knew where they were. It wasn’t until they were excavating in this area that they ran into something hard and realized they were on top of one of them.

While we were learning about the gin basket in the distillery a worker, who happened to be doing quality control, offered us a taste of the bourbon new make that was coming off the still. It was quite good, for new make. It was fun then that we got to see the same new make entered into barrels as we wandered past. One of the tour got the chance to pound in one of the bungs for them. He seemed quite happy with the opportunity.

Past the barreling house is a building that has fallen down. They used the foundations of the building to create gardens which they use to grow the botanicals of the gin they produce (more on that later in the week). In the distance is the longest aging warehouse in Kentucky. It is currently full of aging product that they have made.

Of course, no bourbon distillery tour would be complete without a tasting at the end. Unfortunately, all the bourbon they have is still currently aging in the warehouse shown above. So they made us cocktails using their vodka and their gin. Let’s put it this way, I was impressed enough with the cocktail to buy a bottle of each of their gins. We will talk about those on Thursday.

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