Castle & Key’s Marianne Barnes Shakes up Kentucky’s Distilling Scene

marianne barnes In the May/June 2016 issue—a celebration of Imbibe’s 10th anniversary—we put the spotlight on events that have helped shape the drinks world over the last decade. In the list, we mention the 2015 appointment of Marianne Barnes as Kentucky’s first female master distiller.

The 28-year-old holds a chemical engineering degree from the University of Louisville, and most recently she left a Master Taster position at Woodford Reserve to helm distillation at Castle & Key, a new company with operations based at the historic Old Taylor Distillery. With her impressive resumé and forward-thinking nature, Barnes is poised to shake up the craft distilling scene, so we caught up with her to find out more about her new role.

 It Starts With Gin

Kentucky is known for whiskey production, and while that remains the eventual plan for Castle & Key, Barnes wanted to come out of the gate with something slightly less expected: a gin. “The decision to make gin was based on our desire to create interesting flavors with local ingredients,” she says. With over 113 acres of land spanning the former Old Taylor Distillery property, the team has the ability to grow a number of botanicals that will lend a unique personality to the gin. Growing the ingredients on site will allow for more creative control over the final product, Barnes says. “We also believe that gin is a growing category and hope that our Kentucky-style gin using a bourbon or rye mash base will appeal to a more diverse set of drinkers.”

The first release will be in the London Dry style, and Barnes plans on making four additional gins, including a barrel-aged version, a hybrid spirit infused with house-made Limoncello and two others that will play with the concept of seasonality—something that’s not yet commonplace in American spirits, but has the potential to grow in the coming years. “Our seasonal gin will be a playful way to honor the two seasons of distilling: spring and fall,” she says. “We will be creating two different profiles: one that is lighter and more floral and the other which would be slightly heavier and more spicy.”

The project might require more logistical legwork than the standard gin recipe, but Barnes believes the effort will prove worthwhile. “It will be an interesting learning opportunity for our team, and will require us to constantly be thinking and innovating. And who knows, if one is a runaway hit, it has the potential to become a permanent member of product family, or at least make a reappearance.”

Tradition Stays at the Forefront

When it comes to the whiskey, Barnes isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. Instead, she approaches the project with historical context in mind. “We’re looking for ways to get back to the roots of this industry, and to honor the historic site that we are reviving,” she says. In addition to using restored 1930s-era fermenters and Vendome Copper stills, the whiskeys will be produced using all Kentucky-grown grain and corn. Barnes worked with a local farmer to resurrect the endangered Hickory King corn, an 1800s-era heirloom variety that would have been similar to the kind used for original production of Old Taylor. It will take three years to propagate enough seed to fulfill the amount required to make the whiskey, she says, so they’re currently working with the Halcomb family of Walnut Grove Farm in Adairsville, KY to grow a non-GMO white corn for the time being. “For our proprietary recipes we will be using this grain exclusively,” she says. “I have been out in the field, planting and harvesting with the Halcombs to evaluate the fields and review their approach to fertilization so that we get the right starch content and flavor.”

She says the benefits of communicating directly with the farmers—a practice not every distillery does—are myriad.”The Halcombs have put us in touch with many interesting seed suppliers and together with their knowledge of farming, we have come up with ways to improve the seeds for distillery use. Commodity corn used by most distilleries is really just grown for yield, as it is a major feed crop and not grown for human consumption. Approximately 80% of yellow corn is not grown for human consumption, while the opposite is true for white corn.”

When it’s all said and done, Barnes will create four whiskies in total, including the flagship bottled-in-bond Bourbon, a rye whiskey release slated for 2018, a wheated Bourbon and a malt whiskey that will be smoked via an untraditional culinary method of smoking the grains. “We believe having a varied product line is more compelling to our future customers,” she says. “I don’t drink the same whiskey every night, so why would we expect our customer to?”