An enormous crane was on the hallowed grounds of the former Old Taylor Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., on Thursday, extracting a 60-foot-tall still the new distillery won’t need when it opens next year. Work has been slow and steady at the abandoned site since March — there is plenty of work to be done at a 128-year-old distillery that has been out of commission since 1972.
Master distiller Marianne Barnes — who joined Lexington businessmen Will Arvin and Wesley Murry of the Peristyle LLC company in February to run the 83-acre, yet-to-be-named distillery — was happy to show Insider around the historical complex earlier this week. Many of the buildings are in disrepair, but construction crews are quickly trying to remedy that in Phase 1 of the makeover — restoring roofs, stabilizing the rick house, and making sure all the other buildings are structurally sound and safe.
Barnes, 28, formerly the bourbon/whiskey master taster at Brown-Forman, told Insider in March that she took on the project for two reasons: new product development and the charm of the former Old Taylor Distillery, which includes a towering limestone castle on the premises. She will be the first female master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition.
“The ability to use my engineering background and really get back down to the nitty gritty and start developing the process from the ground up was probably the most enticing thing for me,” said Barnes in March. “Really, everybody who has gone to the site — you go there and you feel the history of the place — it’s really hard not to fall in love with it.”
I witnessed Barnes’ enthusiasm and adoration for the site firsthand as we roamed the complex — peeking inside large, rusted mash cookers (which will be restored); touring the massive (two-football-fields long) rick house that’ll hold 65,000 barrels; and glimpsing the early stages of her laboratory that is located inside the castle.
Cabinets and countertops will be installed in the lab in the coming days, which means she can soon get busy working on the distillery’s first product, a gin that’ll be made with botanicals grown in the European-style garden on the distillery’s campus. She boasts that award-winning garden designer Jon Carloftis has already done some work in the garden and reflection area, and has planted numerous herbs and botanicals near the springhouse.
“He’s going to have to make me a cheat sheet so I know what everything is,” she quips.
She points to the baby-blue-tiled front wall of the laboratory, which looks like it was plucked straight out of the 1960s, and says, “I’m keeping this!”
As we walk around the perimeter of the castle and jump over a small stream that trickles through the moat-like border, two curious men peer over the fence from the street.
“How’d you all get in there?” one man asks while the other takes photos.
“Well, I work here — I’m the master distiller,” Barnes answers.
She explains to the men, who reside in Florida and ventured slightly off the Bourbon Trail, that the site isn’t open yet to tourists but should be next time they visit. They appear giddy to be talking to Barnes, and as we part ways, one turns to the other and says, “I can’t believe we got to meet the master distiller!”
Barnes says that’s been happening a lot lately — many curious bourbon enthusiasts and neighbors make their way to the distillery to take a look around. The site is fenced off and often patrolled by neighbors who live nearby and keep watch on the buildings. While there are no signs yet pointing to the distillery, it’s fairly close to Woodford Reserve in Versailles. That’s fitting given Barnes worked closely on the Woodford brand during her time with Brown-Forman.
As we tour the gardens and the quaint springhouse, she talks about her plans to host events at the site — from outdoor concerts to weddings, there will be all kinds of space and stages allocated for community gatherings. She hints that a restauranteur is even interested in opening up a café on the campus, situated near an outdoor gazebo and picnic area.
Many of the buildings will be restored only for tour and historical purposes. For example, back when Col. E.H. Taylor Jr. made his bourbon in the late 1800s, his heating source was coal. Barnes shows me the bins where trains and, later, trucks would pull up and deposit the coal, and the ovens and boilers where the coal was loaded.
Barnes says her bourbon — which is years away, since it hasn’t even been distilled yet — will be bottled in bond, just as Col. Taylor preferred. With rust to sandblast, stills to be removed and added, and a castle to restore, the intricate details of her bourbon are not at the forefront of her mind.
It’s hard to keep up with everything Barnes and Peristyle envision the distillery to be, but in talking with her for just under an hour, it’s easy to see her passion and commitment to making quality spirits, creating a one-of-a-kind visitor’s experience, and restoring Col. Taylor’s distilling legacy on his home turf.