The team at Castle & Key is wasting no time gearing up for the fall opening to the public. The Whiskey Wash recently caught up with Brand Ambassador Brett Connors to learn more about the preparations and the path that led him to his position at one of the most highly anticipated distilleries of all time:
1.You started off as a bartender. How did that prepare you for your role as Brand Ambassador for Castle & Key?
I think that bartending truly prepares an individual for almost any industry. It helped me refine my interpersonal communication skills, general hospitality skills, and overall patience. Bartending, specifically at a bourbon bar, helped to further compound my preexisting passion for spirits. Additionally, bartending spurred me to focus not only in my personal time, but also during my time at work on educating myself on the industry, spirits, cocktails, and general trends. Being involved in cocktail creation and spirit tastings aided in expanding my palate and allowed me the opportunity to taste thousands of products that I might not have otherwise experienced.
One of the stranger things about bartending is it shares a multitude of parallels with acting, specifically improvisation, as it teaches you how to gauge a crowd, preform on demand, and adapt to ever-changing situations with wit and humility. So a big shout out to my high school improv and theater teacher, Larry Lovelady, who unknowingly taught me how to make a life slinging drinks and talking about booze. I feel having an understanding of performance, whether innate or taught, is imperative to Brand Ambassadors, as the position regularly involves speaking and performing in front of large audiences. In the end, my favorite lesson from bartending is that a career does not have to be exclusive to your hobbies and passions.
2.The first product that will be sold under the Castle & Key label will be gin, which is experiencing a big resurgence right now. What will make Castle & Key’s gin unique?
The beauty with gin is that it is a highly terroir-influenced spirit. Much like wine, the complexities that it exhibits are heavily reliant on the base distillate, the distiller and the botanicals that it incorporates. This gives us the opportunity to really highlight Marianne’s wealth of skills and knowledge, as she will distill our gin from scratch. By working from scratch, we will be able to highlight the quality of the Kentucky grown non-GMO grains that we will be using in all of our spirits.
Since the flavors and aromatics in gin come primarily from the botanicals used in its distillation, we thought it would be interesting to grow a large portion of these botanicals on our stunning 113-acre property. This means that we will be highlighting a variety of unique, native Kentucky botanicals that are not commonly used in other gins, which gives us another opportunity to exhibit Kentucky’s exquisite agricultural properties.
Our gin will be ideal for bourbon drinkers, as we are using our proprietary bourbon and whiskey mash bills to set the foundations for our gins. The last component is the variety of products that we will be releasing, with Marianne developing a traditional gin, a fall and spring seasonal gin, barrel-rested gin, and even a complex gin hybrid (think Lemoncello). All of these factors combined will allow us to produce unique, complex, and delicious products that will be well suited for all places and occasions – a spirit enthusiast’s home, a porch during a hot summer day, and in the hands of a creative bartender.
3.Your Team has gone to great lengths to restore and honor Colonel Taylor’s legacy. What has been the biggest challenge your team has faced so far?
I personally think there have been two substantial challenges in our endeavor to honor and preserve our relationship to Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. and his legacy at Castle & Key. The first challenge is honoring and respecting Col. Taylor’s historical legacy and vision –with him being one of most influential individuals in the history of distilling – while trying to build our own identity and legacy some 93 years after his passing. We feel that this comes down to not simply mimicking our heritage, but rather using his morals and ethics to set a foundation for our team and our exceptionally talented Master Distiller, Marianne Barnes, to build upon.
Our second challenge is that we feel it is important to never compromise quality for convenience. Throughout our property’s renovation, we have regularly made decisions to protect the distillery’s architecture and history that were likely not as cost-effective as the simpler modernize or rebuild options. The biggest factor this effects is the amount of time we need before Castle & Key will have a bourbon on the shelf.
While there are myriad ways to produce younger bourbons, Marianne and the rest of the team felt that it would be a disservice to Col. Taylor’s legacy to do so, as he was the driving force behind the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Thus, our core bourbon brand will be at least four years old, bottled at 100 proof and produced in one distillation season. To be personally honest, I love Bottled-in-Bond bourbons and will not have any complaints about having the opportunity to open (and drink) a few of those bottles when our barrels mature to that point.
4.Castle and Key will be opening its doors for tours in Fall. How have you been preparing for tours and what can folks expect to see?
As a self-proclaimed bourbon nerd, the preparation to help Caroline Blackwood, our Director of Guest Experience & Retail, has been a pure joy. Initially, my focus was on becoming handsome, but quickly realized I couldn’t touch the reputation Colonel Taylor had as a fashion icon. That is when I started really researching the storied history of our distillery. This paired perfectly with examining Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr.’s influence, not just within the microcosm of the bourbon industry, but encompassing the totality of his legacy in Kentucky politics, the agricultural field, progressing hospitality, and as the epitome of a true Kentucky gentleman. Our team further analyzed other experiences throughout Kentucky, in California’s wine country, and even in Scotland in an effort to develop a truly unique and personalized experience for our guests.
Our visitors can expect to see the distillery inside of the Castle, which is almost magical in its appearance and scale. Sprawling over our 113-acre property are five natural limestone-rich springs that are centered around the large castle, tucked along the banks of Glenn’s Creek. Colonel’s Taylor’s original vision for the property stemmed from his desire to be the first in the industry to recognize the importance of hospitality. He brought European architecture to Kentucky through the limestone Castle, the columned Peristyle Springhouse, and the formal Sunken Garden, modeled after the Windsor Castle Gardens in England.
We had the luxury of tasking renowned landscape architect and Kentucky-native, Jon Carloftis, with revitalizing the Sunken Garden, Botanical Trail, Cocktail Garden at the Springhouse, and the Raised-Bed Herb Gardens laid in the ruins of a fallen warehouse. Our guests will be welcomed to wander through these lavish spaces. We want our location to not simply be a pass-through, but rather a place where guests come for the day to truly enjoy the work our team has done and become as captivated with the site as we have. With so many great distillery tours in Kentucky we really wanted to offer something a little more unique by taking a page out of premium experiences in places such as Napa, offering our guests a custom experience.
In summary, visitors will have the chance to see our love and passion for a unique and historic Kentucky distillery that is being resurrected and restored after years of neglect into a showplace for the industry. While I am knowingly biased, our guests will also get the chance to taste the exceptional gins and eventually bourbons and whiskeys that Marianne has been developing and perfecting. Long-term plans include an on-site full scale restaurant, a bed & breakfast, and multiple event centers available to be rented out.
One night during Derby week, I was working in the liquor store while Four Roses Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was doing a tasting. I kept trying to make my way over to talk to him, but we were super busy (did I mention it was Derby week?) and I didn't...