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Marianne Eaves is rewriting the rules of bourbon

This article was published in Smith Journal volume 27.

In a bourbon industry ruled by old men and even older recipes, master distiller Marianne Eaves is preparing to launch something completely new.

McCracken Pike might be the most Kentucky road in Kentucky. Antiquated weatherboard houses, porches big enough for the extended family, trucks out front, lawns that look like an old American dream, unfilled letterboxes by the roadside. Driving along it is like driving through a film set designed in Kentucky’s image.

But we’re here for something that doesn’t seem particularly Kentucky at all. Because if you press on down McCracken, your eyeballs will chance upon an elegant – and entirely out of place – European-style castle. But while most castles were built to keep kings and queens safe from harm, this castle was built for making booze. Lots of it.

Founded in 1887 by Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., a man referred to as ‘the father of the modern bourbon industry’, the limestone castle was once the home of the Old Taylor Distillery Company. At its peak, the 113-acre distillery produced 400 to 1000 barrels of whiskey every day. The distillery grounds also feature sunken gardens inspired by Windsor Castle, as well as a now-defunct train station named after the Colonel himself. 

Since 1972, however, the building and its grounds had been left to rot. With the first bourbon boom over, its doors closed and its whiskey all but gone, Mother Nature did everything she could to repossess the land the distillery stood on. But Mother Nature didn’t work fast enough.

I think I was so surprised because I didn’t see any other female master distillers. I had no idea that it was even in my realm of opportunity.
— Marianne Eaves

In September 2018, after a painstaking four-and-a-half-year restoration process, the distillery was reopened under new ownership and a new name: Castle & Key Distillery (the ‘key’ comes from the distillery’s key-shaped springhouse, from which it draws its water).

As mesmerising as the grounds of this booze factory are, the feather in the distillery’s cap is one Marianne Eaves, bourbon’s first female master distiller since Prohibition.

It’s the 18th of December 2014, the day after Eaves’ birthday. She had just turned 28. “It was a beautiful, snowy winter day,” she remembers of the first time she visited the Old Taylor Distillery. Driving along McCracken Pike, trees sheathed in ice, she concluded that it was the most beautiful place she’d ever been. “But I kept driving through the country, and the castle just popped up out of nowhere. It looked like some kind of fairy wonderland and I thought, no, this is the most beautiful place I've ever been.”

Eaves had been invited for a tour of the distillery by owners Will Arvin and Wes Murray. Until then, she’d been working at Brown-Forman – one of the largest American-owned wine and spirit producers in the country, purveyor of the enormous Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve brands, to name just a couple.

She began as an intern at Brown-Forman in 2009 and was hired as a process engineer in the research and development department, then a master taster. Thanks to her tenacious work ethic, it wasn’t long before she found herself in the office of her boss’s boss, fielding a rather unexpected question: whether or not she wanted to be the next Woodford Reserve master distiller. “I lost my breath – I was like a deer in the headlights,” Eaves says. Thankfully, she caught her breath and gave her answer. “I think I was so surprised because I didn't see any other female master distillers. I had no idea that it was even in my realm of opportunity.” Her answer, for those playing at home, was yes.

Kentucky’s stake in bourbon goes back to the 18th century, but it’s tricky to find a timeline of much repute. It’s thought that Scots, Scots-Irish, French, English and other suck settlers brought distilling over when they occupied the region in the late 18th century. Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, is said to have been the first to age a spirit in charred oak casks. Others give credit to one Jacob Spears. Most contend it was more of an evolution, the work of many hands over many years, rather than an invention by a sole pioneer.

Born in Tennessee, Eaves’ family moved to Louisville (locals pronounce it Luh-ville), Kentucky, before she turned two, and she claims her adopted state as her own. “My parents didn’t really drink around the house, so I don’t have that story about having bourbon in my bottle as a baby or anything like that,” she says. But with roughly 95 per cent of the world’s bourbon originating from Kentucky, and more barrels of bourbon in the state than there are people, it was never far from reach.

For a bourbon legally label itself a bourbon, says Eaves, it has a few rules to adhere to. First, it must be distilled with 51 per cent corn. It has to be less than 160 proof, and must be aged in a charred oak barrel. But it can’t enter the barrel any higher than 125, and has to be bottled at 80 proof or higher. “There’s no actual ageing requirement,” she says. “People think it has to be four years old, but a straight bourbon only has to be two. And it has to be made in the U.S. A lot of people think it has to be made in Kentucky, but it’s the American Spirit.”  

A lot of people have come to expect consistency in flavour, but we’re really after consistency in quality.”
— Marianne Eaves

In a traditionally male-dominated industry, one that’s governed by a just a handful of families, Eaves’ path into the bourbon ‘fraternity’ is, if not entirely unheard of, certainly rare. Even rarer was the gig she was about to be offered as she stepped inside the dilapidated Old Taylor Distillery. “The windows are broken, and there’s ice in the bottom floor of the distillery – we’re essentially walking through a skating rink,” says Eaves of her first time inside the building. “The roof is collapsed, and everything is coated in asbestos and lead. I’m thinking how much work it’s going to be. Then Wes stops me and says, ‘We want to know if you'd be interested in joining our team. Building this thing, designing your brand. This could be your playground.’”

Despite her job at Woodford, which she adored, the opportunity was difficult for Eaves to turn down. While most master distillers at established brands must strictly adhere to age-old recipes, this was the chance to create something new, something that challenged the status quo, something that was distinctly her own.

Her acceptance came with a caveat, though: if she was going to enter into a partnership with these men, she needed to be sure they could take direction from a woman. “My last request was that I had to meet their wives,” she says. “We all had dinner together. Will’s wife is the chief council at Keeneland [Kentucky’s historic race track], so she’s a boss. Wes’s wife is a dentist, so she inflicts pain on people for a living. I knew they could handle it and, right then, I realised we could be partners.”

You wouldn’t know it from the industry’s PR material, but trained distillers like Eaves are actually the exception, not the rule. While many adopt the ‘master distiller’ title as a marketing ploy, more than a few have “never distilled a drop in their lives“. But Eaves is the real McCoy. While she serves a marketing function as the face of the distillery, she also oversees all aspects of the job – most importantly, the recipe and production of the bourbon itself. The buck, and the bourbon, stops with her.  

To fashion her bourbon, Eaves sought counsel from Colonel Taylor. After accepting the role at Castle & Key, she opened one of the few remaining bottles of the Colonel’s 1917 bourbon for a taste. Expecting little from the antique tipple, her palate was pleasantly smacked by notes of butterscotch, sweetness and spice. “It’s not an overstatement to say that I was inspired,” she says.

Curious, Eaves had the spirit analysed by some lab technicians. They knew the Colonel preferred white corn already, owing to marketing materials they’d recovered from his reign. The analysis revealed that he also used a high percentage of barley, as well as a little rye.

Using her lesson from the Colonel as a foundation, Eaves crafted her own recipe. She spent countless hours working to refine it. And then, she stopped. “We’ve put our bourbon into very high-quality casks, and then Mother Nature takes over,” she explains. “I’m not going to try and control the flavour profile or what comes out of the warehouse. A lot of people have come to expect consistency in flavour, but we’re really after consistency in quality.” 

The distillery has already released gin and vodka, and the rye whiskey could be ready in as soon as a year. As for the bourbon? “It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” says Eaves. At time of writing, “ready” is about three years away. Just enough time to save up for a one-way flight to Kentucky, then.