Four years ago a pair of Kentucky businessmen bought a defunct distillery buried under decades of undergrowth and began the daunting process of turning it back into a working whiskey-making operation.
Now, the historic property is again a showplace, complete with a restored sunken garden and colonnaded spring house, ready to wow visitors.
The former Old Taylor distillery, now named Castle & Key, officially will reopen for visitors and tours on Sept. 19.
Founders Will Arvin and Wes Murry won’t say exactly how much it has taken to get the 113-acre property along Glenn’s Creek into shape; only that it is more than the original $6.2 million project estimate. They bought the first parcel of the distillery, built in 1887 by E.H. Taylor, for about $950,000 in May 2014 and planned to open it to visitors in 18 months.
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But as they began peeling back decades of neglect, the possibilities expanded, Arvin said. And the timeline stretched out, too.
According to figures released by Woodford County economic officials, the renovation has now cost in the neighborhood of $30 million.
“It’s called ‘scope creep,’” Arvin said with a laugh.
“The core principles have not changed. From the beginning, we wanted to create a site that was geared toward hospitality. We wanted our guests to come and be able to have a good time and experience bourbon and experience the site and not feel like they had to come, take a tour, and leave,” Arvin said. Instead they wanted visitors to feel free to “meander around the site,” while they enjoy a cocktail perhaps.
“And our aspirations for bourbon remain the same,” Arvin said. Everything sold under the Castle & Key label will be made on-site.
Still, he didn’t dream it could be what it has become.
“We are much different now than the original vision,” he said.
The derelict boiler room, once filled with tumbling piles of bricks, was going to house the entire distilling operation. Now it’s the gift shop.
When distiller Marianne Eaves, who had been a rising star at Brown-Forman, signed on to the project in February 2015, the goalposts shifted.
“I could tell right away that Will and Wes ... that it was important to them to maintain the essence of what this place was, not to revive it as a bourbon ‘Disney World,’ ” Eaves said. “Knowing what this place stood for and having an opportunity to have an impact in bringing it back was probably what drew me in the most.”
She fell in love with the history, with E.H. Taylor’s role in creating the modern bourbon industry. In an era of widespread adulteration, Taylor advocated for purity through the Bottled in Bond Act. He also created one of the first bourbon tourist attractions, bringing hundreds of visitors to the Millville distillery by train.
Once Arvin, Eaves and Murry realized that much of the equipment on site, include huge fermenter tanks and grain hoppers inside the original “castle,” actually could be saved, they made plans to use them.
Eaves commissioned a new 42-foot column still from Vendome of Louisville and has been distilling on site for a couple of years now. The once-rusted tanks again hold fermenting mash that she’s turning into gin, vodka, rye whiskey and bourbon. The gin and vodka, which hit the market this spring, have been receiving rave reviews.
Eaves hopes to have a Castle & Key rye ready in about a year, she said. The bourbon might be coming as early as 2021, she said. “We’re going to leave it in the warehouse and make sure it’s fully matured. ... We’re very happy with the way the whiskey’s aging in the warehouse now.”
An enormous warehouse along the road was one of the first buildings stabilized and it’s again full of aging barrels, including some of Eaves’ whiskey. Another large warehouse is filling up and soon they will need to find more space.
In the meantime, visitors won’t have to hop the fence off of McCracken Pike any more. They will be able to stroll through about half of the grounds on their own, along a garden trail planned and planted by Kentucky celebrity landscaper Jon Carloftis, and soon will be order drinks and sandwiches from the former historic train depot, now known as Taylorton Station.
The rest of the distillery can be visited by booking an “experience” online; all will start and finish in that boiler room, where the tasting room is. There’s also artfully displayed apparel with the Castle & Key logo. The look leans to $350 Barbour jackets and tasteful plaid scarves, a charming sort of bourbon-meets-horse-country esthetic.
Although the grounds are newly manicured, there are enough rough edges to remind you of the industrial origins, including railroad tracks uncovered as they removed the asphalt in front of the building. And several buildings on the grounds are still not restored, including the bottling building, manager’s cottage and the administration building on the other side of the road.
Eventually, Arvin said, they hope to turn the administration building into a restaurant and possibly a hotel. All the buildings have been stabilized and will be repurposed eventually, he said.
Partner Brook Smith, owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, will help Castle & Key bring the next phase to life.
Already the garden, spring house and an event space on site have hosted several weddings, rehearsal dinners and parties.
And many visitors came to preview “restoration tours” over the last few months.
Eaves anticipates there will be plenty of “wow” moments for visitors, from the very first look.
“You’re driving through this little tiny town, in Millville, and just see a castle in the middle of nowhere,” Eaves said. “The castle, the sunken garden, the spring house ... our water source for the whiskey ... are stunningly beautiful. But there are also the little details, the things we were able to repurpose and reuse in bringing it into its new life. I hope people will appreciate the little things, too.”