Castle and Key about to open
On a pleasant fall afternoon, the smell of bourbon mash wafted across the grounds as one of the owners of Castle and Key Distillery gave a tour of what was known for more than a century as Old Taylor. "We're distilling today," Wes Murry said. "We run two 48- to 50-hour shifts a week right now, so we're on the tail end of the second one of those." Next month, they'll ramp up the distilling efforts to six-and-a-half days in a row, Murry said. "It's a great bourbon recipe. We're really excited about it," Murry said. In the fermentation room, six vast mash vats were full of a product for another company which, along with aging and bottling liquor, helps pay the bills at Castle and Key. Six more vats will go online in mid-January and eventually allow them to run their still seven days a week, Murry said. "While we would love to be able to use all our distillation capacity for our own product, it's a little unrealistic - and at the same time, (to) build this whole site ..." Murry said. Murry said presently, they're employing a 70-30 blend -- with the 70 percent for other companies. Over time, that ratio will be reversed, and he hopes that one day everything distilled at Castle and Key will be a Castle and Key liquor. Murry calls that strategy an attempt to become a "turnkey solution," with research and development, distillation, storage and bottling all done on-site. The bottling facility was added in September. "That, too, has been another learning experience, because that's an animal all of its own," Murry said. There have been plenty of those experiences since Murry and Will Arvin purchased the property and its contents in 2014. Budgets have risen, timetables have shifted, and they've added two other investors, including Marianne Barnes - the only female master distiller in Kentucky, according to www.bourbontrails.com. Murry attributed some of the delays to their vision for the site, which was built by Col. E.H. Taylor in 1887 but hadn't been used for more than 40 years when they took over. "We keep getting greedier and greedier - trying to accomplish more of it. Because, you know, what it is is so damn unique and to have people see it the way we see it can become is such a cool experience for all of us," Murry said. Murry is proud of the ongoing restoration of a train depot that will have a prep kitchen and serve as a secondary testing room. Doors and windows were remade from scratch, a new roof was installed, and a wood-burning fireplace is being renovated. "During Col. Taylor's age, it was half the size it is now. ... The front half, because it's historic, we're going back with it, just be the way it was," Murry said. One of the highlights of a Castle and Key tour is the peristyle springhouse. The 130,000 gallons of water it holds can supply 100 gallons of spring water per minute when drawn from, yet the pool remains about 10 feet deep, Murry said. "Fortunately, the carved limestone columns were in great condition and some of the really larger beams that supported it were in good condition, but the rest of it had totally failed," Murry said. Murry and company spent months deciding what to call the place they purchased They couldn't use Old Taylor, which is now made by Buffalo Trace. In the end, they chose one of the first proposals in honor of the limestone castle-type structure at the front of the property and the key-shaped springhouse. "We think it's a good representation of what this place is," Murry said. The old boiler room, in which four massive coal-fired boilers once powered the plant, is being converted into a retail area that will feature Castle and Key-branded clothing, liquor and other items. Two of the idled boilers remain, and the place is lit by sunlight and vintage-looking, electricity-powered chandeliers. Future plans include an e-commerce site that will go online this month (www.castleandkey.com), "hardhat" tours one or two days a week later this year and the first Castle and Key liquors for sale in the next four to eight weeks. A London dry gin called "Edmund's" and a vodka called "Haynes" are named for Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor, and the company's own bourbon may be ready as soon as 2019. Murry said they've already hosted a few weddings and corporate events that went "very well," and the Castle and Key will open to the general public sometime next year. "For us, it's a great opportunity to show people the site and at the same time, learn how to manage this beast of a site better," Murry said. Murry said he doesn't know what to expect once they're fully open, but just 3.4 miles up McCracken Pike is another distillery almost as well known for its tours as its bourbon that may offer a lesson or two. "Woodford (Reserve) up the street, I mean, Good Lord - I hope we don't get anywhere near that number of people. We won't know how to handle it," Murry said with a chuckle. "We'd love the business, but at the same time, it might just be too much business, too fast. We're excited to show it off. We think we've got something that's pretty unique here." Asked whether the challenges of restoring the historic property had driven him to drink, Murry laughed. "I am a consumer, unfortunately, of competitors' products for now and have been for awhile, but you know - not really. This is, for everyone here, like a dream project," he said. "The opportunity to build something like this - to rebuild something like this - to build this team and to be able to show people the journey we've gone on and give them a small taste of what we think this thing can become. We're not done. When we open, we still won't be done. There'll be many more years to go before we're really, really done."