Bourbon Industry

Old Taylor Distillery coming back to life with cocktail parties, gardening presentations and gin

Freshly poured sidewalks and neatly arranged hydrangeas have transformed the Sunken Garden.
Freshly poured sidewalks and neatly arranged hydrangeas have transformed the Sunken Garden. Herald-Leader

MILLVILLE — The still at the Old Taylor site isn't up and running yet but that isn't stopping distiller Marianne Barnes. She's already hard at work in her upstairs lab, cooking up different mashbills for future spirits.

Although the distillery will make bourbon, Barnes is focusing right now on gins. Specifically, on a gin to serve to guest at the upcoming Jon Carloftis Life + Style event at Old Taylor Distillery this weekend.

"Smell that," Carloftis says, holding out a handful of plants to Barnes. "It's nepeta." The lavender-blue flower, otherwise known as catmints, is used in herbal teas and medicinal tonics.

Barnes adds it to her collection, which soon includes lavender, aronia, native mountain mint, juniper, echinacea and more.

She's planning to concoct a gin flavored with estate-grown botanicals.

As Barnes and Carloftis make their way around a walking trail he's installing on the grounds of the distillery, which has endured decades of neglect, vandalism and decay, the signs of progress are everywhere.

The peristyle, where the spring water flows in, has been dismantled for repairs. A wall along Glenn's Creek is being raised to allow for a terrace for sipping drinks; the walking path is coming together with groups of plantings and landscaping throughout.

But the most dramatic change is to Old Taylor's sunken garden, once the showplace of Col. E.H. Taylor's distillery. Over the last year Carloftis has restored it to glory, with tidy rows of hydrangeas taking root among the 100-year-old yews.

The pond in the center is again filled with water and water lilies (and the occasional lab as Carloftis' dogs go for a dip) and concrete paths once again outline green grass.

Carloftis has a plan for Saturday, the third in his year of hospitality events designed to showcase the Proven Winner brand of plants as well as lots of entertainment options. His 200 guests will arrive on buses, enter through the distillery’s “castle” entrance then follow a hidden path down into the garden.

"The moment you get here, you're going to be on this journey," Carloftis said.

As at his other events, he has arranged for a breakfast — from Sage Garden Cafe in Frankfort — featuring veggie and herb quiche bites, Sage spelt and corn biscuits with smoky ham, fruit with local honey mint sauce, lemon basil blackberry muffins, herbed popovers and bite-sized oatmeal walnut French toast.

After a tour of the garden, the guests will sit down to a gourmet lunch of cold poached chicken breast with basil sauce, Champagne gravy and feta cheese, rice salad with herbs, golden raisins, capers, with local fresh peaches, roasted corn salad with fresh tomatoes, okra and edamame. The spread will be served on china in a barn-like room where barrels were once repaired, a blend of rustic and elegant.

The guests will hear about cocktail gardening from the women of Three Toads Farm, learn how to photograph gardens from a top Garden & Gun photographer, get tips on floral design from Bowling Green stylist Roianne Ridley, and get insight from Churchill Downs’ gardener. Barnes will serve a special cocktail.

The event is designed as much to sell the venue as anything else. Previous Carloftis Life + Style events at Keeneland and at the Governor's Mansion sold out. The last event of the year is Oct. 2 at My Old Kentucky Home at Bardstown.

"This ain't no box lunch," Carloftis said. "I want to show them how it's going to be. ... I think what this place can be. There's something you can't know about this place. It's mysterious. It's fantastical."

Barnes said that's how she feels coming to work every day.

"It's like a vacation," she said. When she gets overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of transforming this defunct distillery into a sound operation again, she wanders down to the stream for a few minutes.

Then it’s back to work. Her 24-inch copper column still, with its 375-gallon copper doubler, is arriving any day now from Vendome in Louisville.

She is also getting a separate 17-inch stainless steel gin still, and she had them make it a little taller than normal so she could distill to a higher proof.

Inside the castle building, workmen are overhauling the gigantic fermentation tanks. Once reconditioned, Barnes will be able to fill them with mash again.

Barnes, who was the heir apparent to Woodford Reserve master distillery Chris Morris at Brown-Forman, was lured to Old Taylor by co-owners Wes Murry and Will Arvin with an ownership stake and a chance to revive the distillery built in the 1880s.

She will discuss her vision for Old Taylor, which will be announcing its new name in coming weeks, with Carloftis' guests.

"This is the sneak peek," Carloftis said. Having seen the distillery in the midst of its transformation, people will "feel a part of it" when it's done.

The target date for opening the distillery to the public is April 1, Barnes said. She hopes to start distilling in January with steady production of 20 to 30 barrels a day by February.

Despite the millions already invested in the property, they aren't running out of money, Barnes said.

She plans to make at least two bourbons, an American malt whiskey from smoked, malted barley, and four different gins. Making gin will give them an immediate product to sell, while bourbon takes years to age.

"Six days and you're ready to put gin in the bottle," she said.

Compared to the months of work to get Old Taylor this far, that's nothing.