Thursday, May 17, 2018

Castle and Key Distillery

The Old Taylor Distillery near Frankfort, Kentucky has long interested us because of the appearance of the limestone structures that resemble a European castle.  Built by the flamboyant Col. E. H. Taylor in the late 1890s after a trip to Europe where he was taken with the beauty of the medieval castles. 
Aristocratically born and descended from two U. S. presidents (James Madison and Zachery Taylor), Col. Taylor had expensive tastes and was accustomed to getting what he wanted.  His title of Colonel was not from service in the military but, like Colonel Sanders, was because he was a Kentucky Colonel.  Taylor came to distilling because of his role as a banker in funding several distilleries.  He was very innovative in his introduction of copper fermentation vats, column stills and the use of steam heat in rickhouses.  Perhaps his greatest contribution to the bourbon industry was his influence in establishing the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897.  This provision assured purity of bourbon at a time when getting unadulterated spirits was nearly impossible.  The Bottled in Bond Act required bourbon sold with the designation “Bottled-in-Bond” to be 100 proof, be distilled in one six month season, stored in government inspected warehouses for a minimum of four years.  Bottled in Bond bourbon labels included the location of distillation and bottling in the U. S.  Probably not coincidentally, many of the provisions of the Bottled in Bond Act favored Col. Taylor’s bourbon operations.
Castle and Key bourbon in storage
After launching Old Fire Copper (OFC) Distillery (now called Buffalo Trace Distillery) in Frankfort, Taylor wanted to build a distillery that was a destination center.  While most distilleries at the end of the 1800s were intended to produce whiskey quickly, Col. Taylor wanted to make his distillery as well as the bourbon to be an attraction.  He set to have the grounds of the distillery beautifully landscaped and prepared for visitors.  His political influence brought a rail line to run by his distillery along with many visitors.  He also had the world’s longest masonry rickhouse.  This steam heated storage facility could age an unbelievable quantity of bourbon barrels to maturity.  The distillery was in operation from 1897 through 1972 when it closed and was abandoned.  The facility began a decline that appeared to lead to demolition over the 40+ years that the facility sat empty. 
Restored gardens at Castle and Key
Since the former Old Taylor Distillery is just a stone’s throw from the Woodford Reserve Distillery along Glenn’s Creek near Millville, Kentucky, we have driven past the abandoned structure many times.  We have admired the beauty of the limestone castle and wished that we could walk through it.  A couple of years ago it appeared that our wish would some day be granted when we saw renovations taking place.  Although the temptation to trespass to see the progress of the restoration was very tempting, we settled for taking photos from the road.  When we read that a group was planning to return the Old Taylor site to the former glory of 100 years ago, we were overjoyed.  We learned that a talented young master distiller was recruited who has big plans to make great spirits in an inspiring location.  The name, Castle and Key, was chosen because of the castle appearance of the main distillery building and the keyhole shaped spring from which the water for the bourbon is drawn. 
Keyhole shaped spring
My pal, Greg, is just as taken with the idea of touring Castle and Key as I am so we had to go visit.  Advance tickets for tours were sold on a very limited basis and tours of the distillery are to end in late May 2018 so renovation and restoration can continue on pace.  We were happy to be able to get into the facility before many changes are made. 
We left Huntington around 9 am and drive to Central Kentucky stopping at Rural King to pick up a few items.  I needed additional diesel tanks for the tractor fuel and Greg wanted to look at the bargains on blue jeans. We stopped by the Georgetown house to drop off some things and to let Greg drive the tractor around some.  We left shortly for the drive to Castle and Key arriving about 30 minutes early for our 2:30 pm tour.  We started in the original yeast room that was done in white tile that would have been easy to clean for maintaining the yeast cultures.  
Steel fermentation vats
We went to the fermentation room and was shocked to learn how many large fermentation tuns were in the room.  I didn’t fully understand why the steel tanks with a thin coating of oxidation didn’t cause problems with the fermentation.  I know that iron is the enemy of bourbon which is why the barrels have no nails so I want to learn more about the steel vats.  Our guide told us that the distillery is currently making spirits for other distillers until production gets in full swing on Castle and Key products. 
Stainless steel column still for making vodka and gin
We saw where the giant old column still once stood which was removed to make way for a smaller Vendome copper bourbon column still that is more efficient on the scale that is expected at Castle and Key.  There also a small stainless steel column still for making vodka and gin.  This still has a chamber that can be packed with botanicals.  The gin can pass through the chamber as a vapor to pick up flavors to give the gin the characteristic flavors. 
Formal gardens for event venues
We walked through the beautiful gardens that will once again host weddings, corporate gatherings and other events.  There is also a garden where herbs are grown to be used in the making of gin and flavored vodkas.  These gardens were so overgrown that the restoration crew didn't even know that there was a concrete pond at the center.  The over half century of neglect had nearly destroyed all of the structures that were once so elegant.  We continued to the huge brick rickhouse where the barrels of bourbon are stored.  They also store many barrels for other distillers to help make ends meet until the Castle and Key bourbon is ready to sell in about four years.  It was interesting to learn that the income from storing other distillers’ barrels ($2 per barrel per month) keeps the company in the black even before any bourbon is sold.  
Large brick rickhouse
Because time had done so much damage to the rickhouses, a lot of work had to be done to make it functional as a place to store bourbon for many years.  Although we were unable to enter it, we saw another large concrete rickhouse that had been gutted and all of the metal barrel racks had been sold for scrap.  New racks are being constructed for the facility that will return as a rickhouse once completed. 
We completed our tour in the bar area adjacent to the gift shop.  Our guide served mixed drinks to us made from Castle and Key gin and vodka since it will be several years before there is bourbon.  Although neither Greg nor I are fans of vodka and gin, we enjoyed the drinks.  We took a few photos on the way out and started the drive back to Huntington.  We stopped at Mount Sterling so Greg could get his Krystal Burger then we drove on to Owingsville near Morehead where we stopped at good local Mexican restaurant for dinner. 
Barrel ramp
We had a great day at Castle and Key.  Getting to spend a day with Greg was fun enough but getting to see the Old Taylor Distillery being brought back to life was a thrill.  We hope to come back for future tours as the renovations progress. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Maker's Mark Ambassador Barrel

Special ambassador label
When we visited the Maker's Mark Distillery in May 2011 Emily and I decided to become Ambassadors. This gets us on the mailing list including a nice gift each year at Christmas for our Maker's Mark bottles. It also gets our names placed on a newly distilled barrel of Maker's Mark with an invitation to come to the distillery in a few years once the bourbon is sufficiently aged. 
Bill Samuels Jr.
This spring I happily received my "golden ticket" to come to Loretto, Kentucky to take a special heritage tour and to purchase and wax seal bottles from our barrel. After checking calendars and plans I invited my good friend, Rex Dillinger, to be my guest for the day at the distillery.
Ambassador seal in wax
We spent the night at our home in Georgetown before rising early to get some breakfast followed by a stop at Frank's Donuts.  We drove through the beautiful Kentucky countryside on a nice spring day toward Maker's Mark.  We were at the distillery in plenty of time for our 10 am tour and visited with several other guests who were also ambassadors whose barrels were being opened at about the same time as mine. 
What we didn't know is that our tour leader would be Bill Samuels, Jr., CEO of Maker's Mark and son of the founders of the brand.  We found Bill to be a great host with interesting stories of how is parents built the distillery following the repeal of prohibition including throwing out the recipe for the family's T. W. Samuels bourbon and starting over with a new recipe for a wheated bourbon.  Even the unique bottle and logo designs came from Bill's mother who had a vision for what Maker's Mark could become.  
Steve with Bill Samuels, Jr.
We were fascinated to learn that some of Samuels' ancestors were part of the gang that traveled with the James brothers.  In addition, some of his ancestors were part of the renegade guerrilla army led by William Quantrill during and after the American Civil War.  Bill told us that when Quantrill's men finally surrendered they chose to hand over their weapons in his family's living room.  He still has a pistol from the surrender which may have been the last weapon confiscated after the Civil War.  We were also interested in the cast of characters that frequented his home when he was a child.  Julian (Pappy) Van Winkle and Col. Harland Sanders were frequent guests and his godfather was Jim Beam.  
Barrels of Maker's Mark 46 receiving secondary aging

Bill took us through the fermentation vats and to the giant stills producing Maker's Mark.  In the bottling room his told us about how his parents struggled to get a wax for sealing the bottles that was just right.  As with other tours of Maker's Mark or any other distillery, the last stop is usually the tasting room.  The difference this time is that Bill shared how he oversaw the development of Maker's 46 which is secondarily aged with staves of French oak.  We also heard how he likes to drink his bourbon.  While all bourbon must be sold at least 80 proof, Bill says that he thinks that the flavors are best at around 70 proof so he adds a little water or ice.  He told us that high alcohol content will anesthetize the taste buds and prevent getting the full flavor profile of good bourbon.  
We enjoyed the generous samples of Maker's, Maker's 46 and cask strength versions of each as we listened to Bill's captivating stories of a lifetime in the bourbon industry.  
Steve dipping the top of an ambassador bottle in wax.
After our tastings, Rex and I picked up the bourbon from my barrel and dipped them in the characteristic red wax with assistance from the staff at the visitor center.  Because the bottles came from a special ambassador barrel, we were able to stamp the top of the wax with a special seal.  I picked up enough of the bottles for everyone back home including 4 for Cindy to take back to Oregon.