Restoring a Kentucky Bourbon Landmark at Old Taylor Distillery

The exterior of the Old Taylor Distillery, housed in what looks like a European stone castle.

Much of the mystique and allure of the spirits industry lies in its rich history. Over the years, myth, facts and folklore have inextricably mixed to create the culture surrounding the drinks we love. In few places are these stories better told than at Kentucky bourbon distilleries. This is particularly true at the freshly renovated and reopened Old Taylor Distillery, where whiskey is made using methods of old in a building modeled after European castles. Here, enter the rickhouse, and the smells, cobwebs and lack of technology almost feel like entering a portal to another time.

“There isn’t a whole lot that’s changed about the bourbon-making process over the hundred years since Colonel [Edmund Haynes] Taylor, Jr. was here,” says Old Taylor Master Distiller Marianne Barnes. “There's a lot of science that's come in and, of course, new technology and electronics that make a plant easier to run with fewer people, but the timing, the temperature, the chemical reactions and the importance of yeast and maturation, it's all pretty much the same.”

A European style spring house. The distillery’s water source is located in the keyhole-shaped European spring house — Colonel Taylor believed Kentucky's pristine water was the key to his great bourbon. Photo by Malicote Photography.

The beautiful setting doesn’t hurt: the distillery’s water source is located in the keyhole-shaped European spring house (“because [Colonel Taylor] said that the water here in Kentucky was the key to [his] great bourbon”), and the grand formal gardens have been restored with help from garden designer Jon Carloftis.

Nowadays, the distillery is made even more impressive by an herb garden and botanical trail. These new additions also serve a more utilitarian purpose: supplying flavoring components for gin that Barnes plans to produce.

Manicured gardens with benches and concrete paths. The grand formal gardens of the Old Taylor Distillery have been restored with help from garden designer Jon Carloftis. Photo by Malicote Photography.

“Because we want to be known as a bourbon distillery and we won't have bourbon for five years, I thought the best way to do that was bring some familiar bourbon flavors to a different spirit,” she says. “We will be making a traditional gin but I'm going to put a spin on it with some Kentucky native ingredients, such as honeysuckle and different varieties of mint. There's a lot of opportunity to bring the vanillas and the citrus and the sweet notes that people recognize in bourbon to a gin, just by infusion.”

The exterior of the Old Taylor Distillery, housed in what looks like a European stone castle. The building housing the Old Taylor Distillery was built in the style of European castles to generate bourbon tourism in the 1880s. Photo: Marianne Barnes

In a strategic move conceived by Col. Taylor, the estate was constructed to foster bourbon tourism in the 1880s — at that time, it was almost unheard of to visit a bourbon distillery. “He spent some time in Europe and was in awe when he came back,” says Barnes. “He wanted to bring the elegance and sophistication of the wineries and cognac distilleries, that desire to be at a distillery and fall in love with the product, back to Kentucky.”

As a result, “he spared no expense building this place,” she says. “He was probably a little bit crazy and wanted to show off. He built a place to entertain and impress at a time when people really didn't go to see bourbon distilleries.”

Taylor was also an innovator in advertising his whiskey. Back in the days when distilleries sold bourbon by the barrel, he was the first to decorate his barrels. “He decided to change it up and put brass hoops on the barrels so they would stand out behind the bar,” says Barnes. “He was using it as a way to attract people because he knew that his product was that good.”

A large concrete room with concrete poles. The building's circa-1950 bomb shelter can hold up to 65,000 barrels. Photo by Malicote Photography.

But underlying all the beauty is a sense of functionality — which Barnes has a particular appreciation for. While she studied chemical engineering at the University of Louisville, she designed several ethanol distilleries. “I always like to say I knew how to make a very highly efficient, high yield distillery,” she says. “The way that [Old Taylor] is laid out, the way that it flows, I couldn't set it up any better myself.”

Col. Taylor was something of a renaissance man. Like his great-uncle President Zachary Taylor, Col. Taylor was into politics, serving as mayor of Frankfurt, Ky. for almost 10 years. He was also a leading force behind the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act.

Now, Old Taylor is earning its place in history again with the first female distiller at a Kentucky bourbon distillery. But Barnes didn’t take the job just for the status. “I was attracted to the site because of the challenge and because of the ability to build something new and work with Will Arvin and Wes Murray to put our stamp on what the Kentucky distilling industry really started as and is all about,” she says.

A woman holding a snifter of whiskey.Old Taylor is earning its place in history again with the first female distiller at a Kentucky bourbon distillery. But Marianne Barnes didn’t take the job just for the status — she was after the opportunity to restore the brand to its former greatness. Photo by Malicote Photography.