History of Castle & Key Distillery

Castle and Key Distillery brought back life to the once abandoned Old Taylor Distillery that was once heavily used by infamous bourbon legend, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. The distillery that the Colonel once walked in and distilled some of the highest quality whiskies at the time was left unused and deteriorating. Distillate is now once again running through the veins of the distillery, giving it new life and restoration with a modern twist. The Cast and Key brand may be relatively new, but the history behind where they are distilling is deeply rooted and adds another level of appreciation for this new product.

The Castle and Key Distillery was once known as the Old Taylor Distillery. The Old Taylor Distillery was built in 1887 by Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. in Millville, Kentucky. Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. was born on Friday February 12, 1830 in Columbus, Kentucky to John Eastin Taylor and Rebecca Edrington Young. Edmund’s father died at an early age of typhus, a common bacterial infection of the time. After his father’s death, young Edmund was sent to live with a distant relative of his, Zachary Taylor, in New Orleans, Louisiana. General Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor was in the United States Army and served in several wars including the War of 1812, Black Hawk War, Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. He worked through the ranks and by the end of his military career had reached Major General. Zachary eventually became the twelfth president of the United States of America, serving one of the shortest terms in United States history. He served as president from March 4, 1849 to July 9, 1850 before passing away from a stomach ailment. During Zachary’s time in the army, he found himself stationed in various places in Louisiana. At the time when young Edmund was sent to live with him he was stationed in New Orleans. Edmund attended school at Boyer’s French School located on Conti Street in New Orleans.

Edmund eventually returned back to his home state and attended the Sayre School in Frankfort, Kentucky. During this time he was sent to live with his uncle by the name of Edmund Haynes Taylor, the same name as Edmund. As a way of distinguishing the two, the junior was added to the younger Edmund. By trade Edmund Sr. was a banker and Edmund Jr. followed in his footsteps. Edmund Jr. started out working under his uncle at the Bank of Kentucky but then eventually began working for the Commercial Bank of Kentucky. He eventually started his own banking practice opening the doors of Taylor, Turner & Company.

Edmund Jr.’s work in the banking business helped lead him into the distilling industry by working with distilleries by lending them money and seeing their financials. With an interest in the industry, he opened Gaines, Berry & Company in 1862 and then reorganized the company in 1868 as W. A. Gaines & Company along with partners Hiram Berry and W.A. Gaines in 1868. Taylor went abroad and spent some time in Europe and studied the distilling industry and operations to be able to bring back that knowledge to help benefit the company he was a part of. He traveled to Scotland learning from the scotch whiskey industry, to Ireland to study the Irish whiskey market and to Germany to immerse himself in the beer industry. On his journey in Europe is where he gained a great appreciation for the quality of the whiskey and copper distillation equipment. Taylor played a background role in establishing the company while Hiram Berry was more on the forefront, but the knowledge that he returned with allowed the company to become successful. Taylor left the partnership in 1870.

In 1869 Edmund Jr. ventured out and purchased the Leestown Distillery located in Frankfort, Kentucky from the Swigert family and renamed the distillery Old Fire Copper (commonly referred to as O.F.C). Being the businessman that he was, Taylor Jr. also purchased a small distillery in Millville, Kentucky in the early 1870’s. He named the distillery J. Swigert Taylor Distillery and put his son, Jacob Swigert Taylor in charge. E.H. Taylor Jr. continued to be involved with distillery operations when he became the guardian of James E. Pepper after the death of his father Oscar Pepper. Oscar Pepper was a distillery and owned the Oscar Pepper Distillery. James was a minor at the time of his father’s death so he could not own the distillery, so it remained in control of his mother. After his father’s death, James took his mother to court to gain ownership of the distillery. Edmund Jr. and James were able to win the inheritance of the distillery and Edmund Jr. was to help until James came to age. Taylor helped obtain finances for the distillery’s expansions over the years which helped the distillery grow in size and capacity.

In 1873 the Colonel had the original O.F.C distillery torn down and rebuilt a brand new facility. He focused on making the distillery as great as he could by using copper fermentation tanks, updated grain equipment, column stills and even steam heating systems in warehouses to help regulate the temperatures for controlled aging of the whiskey. All of these improvements were great innovations at the time, but they also didn’t come cheaply. Most of the improvements to the distillery were made on credit and Edmund Jr. was having difficulties paying off his debt. Hardship found Taylor once again in 1879 when he was near becoming bankrupt, so his debts were purchased by a St. Louis liquor firm Gregory and Stagg. Since Taylor could not repay his debts, as payments he sold the Old Fire Copper distillery to the firm. The firm also took possession and sold off the Oscar Pepper Distillery. Taylor had tied the Oscar Pepper Distillery’s finances with his own personal financial struggles, therefore causing him and James E. Pepper to lose the company. The Oscar Pepper Distillery was sold to James Graham and Leopold Labrot and the distillery was renamed Labrot and Graham Distillery. The Oscar Pepper Distillery/Labrot and Graham Distillery still exists today and is the home of production of Woodford Reserve.

The firm that was taking over Edmund’s whiskey ventures was made up of James Gregory and the legendary George Thomas Stagg. Despite selling the company, Taylor remained working at the Old Fire Copper Distillery. The company eventually reorganized itself and changed its name to E.H. Taylor, Jr. Company, although by this time Edmund had very little ownership shares of the company remaining after the sale, however the company used his name. This would eventually be an area of conflict between Taylor and Stagg. The firm at the time was in the whiskey business as a broker, but didn’t have a name for themselves and a producer, thus keeping the Taylor name on the product was necessary at the time since Edmund Jr. was already established and well known.

In 1882 hardship struck the Old Fire Copper Distillery when lightning struck the facility causing a fire that destroyed the plant. Edmund helped to oversee the new construction of the distillery and in 1883 the plant was back up and running. This same distillery is still standing and operating today as the current Buffalo Trace Distillery. Another blow to Taylor came in 1882 when the Gregory and Stagg firm took over the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery, which was still being run and operated by Jacob Taylor. Like Edmund, Jacob stayed on with the company and managed the plant.

With tensions rising between the rivalry between Taylor and Stagg, Edmund sought to leave the company that he once founded. He reached a deal with Stagg that allowed him to regain possession of the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery in exchange for Edmund Jr. giving up his remaining interest in the Old Fire Copper plant and leaving the company. With a deal finally met, the Taylors parted ways from Gregory and Stagg in 1885 and focused back on whiskey production at the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery. The Taylors changed the name of the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery to the Old Taylor Distillery and formed the company E.H. Taylor, Jr. and Sons. In 1887 the Taylors rebuilt and expanded the distillery and formed the signature look of a castle. While many distilleries of the time were mere factories, the shape and style of the distillery proved to be great for the marketing of the brand as it attracted tourists to visit the grounds of the distillery. The distillery also featured a springhouse, sunken gardens and design inspired by European style. Here at the distillery they produced the Old Taylor brand of bourbon whiskey. The Old Taylor Distillery allowed Edmund Jr. to reestablish himself as a great distiller that focused on the production of quality products.

The distillery operated until the start of Prohibition forced the closure of the plant in 1917. Only six distilleries were allowed to produce during Prohibitions via special licenses from the government, and the Old Taylor Distillery was not one of them. On Friday January 19, 1923 Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. died in Frankfort, Kentucky at the age of 92. In 1935, after Prohibition, National Distillers acquired the Old Taylor Distillery and brand. They continued to produce the brand until 1987 when National Distillers was acquired by Jim Beam, however operations at the Old Taylor Distillery had ceased years before in 1972. For several decades the distillery was abandoned and started to dilapidate. In recent history the distillery was attempted to be reopened and was sold several times. Cecil Withrow and Robert Sims purchased the property in 1996 with hopes of opening a whiskey distillery and a spring water bottling plant from a limestone spring nearby. The idea was short-lived and was never successful. In 2005 Scott Brady purchased the property and tore down several warehouses and sold off the wood from the structures.

In 2012 Will Arvin came across some photographs of the dilapidated distillery. Although it was in ruins it sparked an interest in him. Will invited Wesley Murry, whom he had met through a mutual friend, to check out the grounds of the distillery and the two began to dream of bringing the distillery back to life. In 2014 Will and Wes partnered together and purchased the property with plans to open a distillery. After being practically abandoned for decades, the duo had a lot of work ahead of them to make their dream come true. After investing millions of dollars into the restoration of the former distillery, they successfully opened their distillery and the Old Taylor site is now the home of the Castle & Key Distillery. The Old Taylor brand is no longer associated with the distillery itself as it was acquired in 2009 by Buffalo Trace from Jim Beam where it remains today.

Will and Wes had the dream to distill, but did not have the knowledge. They reached out to Marianne Barnes Eaves on LinkedIn about their project and she was eventually brought on as the company’s first master distiller. However, the feat of adding Marianne to the team was much deeper than that, as she became the first female master distiller since Prohibition. Marianne was a graduate of University of Louisville, earning a degree in Chemical Engineering in 2012. She got her start in the distilling industry at Brown-Forman, the parent company of whiskey giants such as Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester. She began as an intern in 2009 and by 2014 she was the master taster. During her time at Castle & Key, Marianne helped oversee the construction of the stills that she would be operating and helped to create the distillery’s first mash bills.

The company began making vodka and gin, which did not need to be aged which allowed for the early income of the brand. Restoration Rye was the first aged whiskey product from the company made up of a mash bill of 63% rye, 17% corn and 20% malted barley. The first batch of their rye product was released in 2020. The rye is available in both small batch and single barrel. Distillation and aging also began on their bourbon which is made up of 73% corn, 10% rye and 17% malted barley. The first batch of their bourbon was released at the distillery on March 26, 2022. It was aged for four years and bottled at 98 proof (49% alcohol by volume). Before the bourbon was able to hit the market, Castle & Key lost their master distiller. Marianne left Castle & Key in May 2019 to pursue other goals and consulting.

Castle and Key may be a new distillery, but the history of the grounds runs deep with bourbon history. A distillery that was once abandoned is now full of new life and beginnings. Castle and Key is just making their start in the industry but they will be sure to make an impact. Their restoration of the property has allowed touring to return to the historic landmark and allow consumers to walk in the same footsteps as Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. So the next time you are sitting down with a pour of one of Castle and Key’s products remember you are sipping more than what is in your glass you are sipping history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s