Almost a year after buying the historic Old Taylor distillery in Woodford County, Will Arvin and Wes Murry have hired distiller Marianne Barnes, who could become the first female master distiller in Kentucky, certainly in decades.
Barnes had been the up-and-coming protégé of Chris Morris at Brown-Forman. She helped select the bourbons for the company's high-profile new Old Forester Whiskey Row series.
Barnes, 28, who started at Brown-Forman as an intern in 2009 and in five years worked her way up to master taster, said in an interview Sunday that the decision to leave was not an easy one.
"The opportunity of resurrecting Old Taylor, I just thought it was once-in-a- lifetime and couldn't pass it up," she said. "I'm young enough to take a few risks. ... It really felt like the right thing to do. I'm getting to follow my entrepreneurial spirit."
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Barnes said she has an ownership stake in the venture as well.
"It was a carefully calculated risk. It probably seems riskier than it is," she said. "The other two owners ... they're in great financial positions, so there's no concern as far as it going under because of poor financial backing. The biggest risk was maybe not knowing how long this place would be around, what the industry would look like five years down the road when we have mature bourbon to sell. But you don't get where you want to go unless you take some risks."
Hiring Barnes away from Brown-Forman, parent of Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel's and one of the top spirits companies in the world, is a major coup for two guys with no distilling background.
Indeed, Arvin and Murry don't have a still yet.
But a chance to build a brand from the ground up might have been what attracted Barnes, a chemical engineer from Louisville.
"Building a whole new brand, you come in not knowing where your grain is going to come from ... I will develop a grain recipe, figure out exactly which yeast strains we'll use," she said.
She said they were working on a laboratory for her, and she hopes to be distilling by January.
In addition to a traditional bourbon — probably bottled-in-bond to honor Col E.H. Taylor's contribution to the establishment of the cornerstone principal of making what you sell — Barnes said she planned to make a gin.
Barnes said her traditional training, at the side of master distiller Morris of Woodford Reserve, and her technical background set her apart.
Also unusual: Barnes is a vegan, after spending more than a decade as a vegetarian, something that she thinks has helped broaden and enhance her palate.
"I'm learning different spices, too — so many different spice characteristics present in bourbon that I never really knew before I was cooking a lot at home," she said.
All of which played into Arvin and Murry's decision to recruit Barnes, who was singled out by Forbes in its 2015 list of 30 Under 30 in the Food & Drink category.
"Finding the right person with the technical knowledge; vision; and talent was key, and we knew that Marianne had to be the one," Murry said in a statement.
Arvin said recently that they are closing in on a name for their distillery and are finalizing many details.
Their Peristyle company, which purchased the 83-acre property in May for $950,000, has been approved for a variety of tax incentives, including $70,718 for a $3 million visitors center; and up to $250,000 from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority for an estimated $4.2 million renovation. It also has preliminary approval from the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority for up to $1.69 million in tax incentives over 10 years for renovating the site and developing it for tourism.
Murry and Arvin also have asked Woodford County Fiscal Court for assistance with about $850,000 for improvements to water, gas and electric utilities that would benefit the distillery and the Millville community.
The distillery grounds already have undergone a transformation, thanks to renowned gardener Jon Carloftis. He has reconfigured the landscape and replanted the sunken garden next to the distillery's iconic limestone "castle."
Barnes said everyone has been surprised at what's been found underneath decades of neglect.
"Everything structurally is very good — it's just roofs, and windows," she said. "A lot of the old equipment that was there we're going to be able to use — big tanks, grain silos, mash cookers — we're going to retrofit and use a lot of it."
She said watching the distillery emerge from the mist of time and the chance to be a part of bringing it back to life proved irresistible.
"You go out to the site, feel the history, and it's hard not to fall in love," Barnes said.
"We've got a huge asset in the distillery itself, and being the first female master distiller, and with the technical training — I can't wait to start putting out products for everybody to taste."