There’s a special sort of fanfare in the whiskey community that is reserved for when a new distiller of Kentucky straight bourbon officially comes of age. This milestone is of course achieved when they release their first brand of straight bourbon, which can technically be done after the whiskey has spent two years resting in newly charred oak barrels. More commonly, though, distilleries opt to wait until the whiskey reaches four years old, at which point it can legally be labeled as simply “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” without any additional need for an exact age statement. That is the moment when it’s generally reckoned that a distillery has officially graduated to becoming a full member of the Kentucky bourbon community, and for Castle & Key that time has finally come.
Castle & Key is a distillery that has had oceans and reams of copy written about it since co-founders Will Arvin and Wes Murry purchased the defunct, derelict site of the Old Taylor Distillery, which had been out of commission since 1972. After buying the site in 2014 and beginning its restoration into a modern distillery, Castle & Key has subsequently produced an array of new products, including some really excellent, punchy gin, and the brand’s first whiskey, Restoration Rye. But a veritable army of Kentucky bourbon obsessives have been patiently waiting on this release, Castle & Key’s first branded Kentucky straight bourbon. There was so much anticipation, in fact, that bottles sold out in minutes.
Lost in the shuffle, meanwhile, is the rather odd route that the brand has taken to get to this point. After beginning its distilling operations in the mid-2010s the distillery garnered tons of headlines for its hiring of former Brown-Forman distiller Marianne Eaves as its Master Distiller, making her the first female Master Distiller working for a Kentucky distillery since before Prohibition. Eaves quickly became the focus of almost all of the company’s PR over the next few years, but she then seemingly unexpectedly left Castle & Key in mid-2019, before any of the whiskey she’d distilled for the company had ever been released. Subsequently, Eaves has referred to the experience positively as a “fairy tale job,” but never quite explained why she decided to transition instead into a career of industry consulting and freelance blending/distilling. She’s since given birth to her first child and launched a variety of initiatives, including a blind tasting box service called Eaves Blind.
Castle & Key, meanwhile, seemed to react to Eaves’ departure by scrubbing whatever traces of the former Master Distiller still remained from the company’s branding. You won’t find any reference to her in any of the company press releases announcing this bourbon, for instance, despite the fact that she presumably oversaw its initial distillation and aging. Nor has Castle & Key ever seemingly hired or promoted another individual to the job title of “Master Distiller,” having seemingly done away with the job title entirely since Eaves left in 2019. Curious if the company wanted to clarify this situation, I reached out with some questions, which received no reply. It remains a confusing footnote in the Castle & Key story.
Edit: After publication, I heard back from a Castle & Key representative who said the following: “After joining the Castle & Key team, Marianne helped to develop Castle & Key’s recipes, processes, and oversaw distillation until 2019; she departed Castle & Key before our whiskey was at a point of maturity. Castle & Key’s new bourbon reflects the blending skills of Jon Brown, Castle & Key’s Quality Manager, who runs the Research & Development Department, and Brett Connors, who handles blending at the distillery on a day-to-day basis.”
Regardless, we have a new bourbon to taste today. Castle & Key’s bourbon mash bill is stated to be 73% white corn, 10% rye and an unusually high 17% malted barley, making this effectively something like a “high-malt bourbon.” This first release was created as two separate small batches of 80 barrels each, both of which are blends of barrels aged 4 years. They’re bottled at almost identical strengths of 49% (98 proof) for batch #1, and 49.5% (99 proof) for batch #2. My review sample is from batch #1, and both batches carry a roughly $50 MSRP. So with all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, there are some classic elements here, and also some notes that would seemingly imply this is still a fairly young spirit. I’m getting both brown sugar and honey, along with some more floral impressions, fresh apples, cola-like spice, dry roasted peanut shells, and oak that has more than a little sawdust impression. The latter note in particular feels like a more youthful one.
On the palate, things turn sweeter, with prominent notes of vanilla cream and simultaneous impressions of both honey and toffee. It’s a little bit bready/doughy, likely from that higher share of malted barley in the grist, along with impressions of cinnamon sugar and peanut brittle, and more of that apple flesh. The ethanol doesn’t express itself in a particularly hot way on the palate, but there is a certain “raw” booziness in terms of flavor that detracts a bit from the overall profile. The finish, meanwhile, seems quite short to me, seemingly disappearing moments after the initial sip and taste has abided. All in all, the profile simply isn’t quite as bold as I hoped it might be at this proof point.
At the end of the day, this is a fine Kentucky straight bourbon, and I’m glad that it carries a reasonable MSRP of $50 (in a beautiful bottle), which is in line at least with what consumers now expect to pay for the first release from a smaller, craft distillery. But at the same time, I feel this release may feel like something of a disappointment to some whiskey geeks who have been reading so much about Castle & Key for so long, and an indication that perhaps their spirit still needs more time to truly come into its own. Here’s hoping that subsequent batches continue to mature or perhaps incorporate older spirit, and that Castle & Key continues to make strides forward in the meantime.
Distillery: Castle & Key
City: Frankfort, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 49% (98 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.