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First female master distiller on the job at Castle & Key

Marianne Barnes, master distiller at Castle & Key

MILLVILLE, KENTUCKY -- Old Taylor Distillery is rising from the ruins. The 113-acre site was largely taken over by nature as it sat abandoned for the past four decades along Glenn's Creek. But when new owners Will Arvin and Wes Murray bought the property three years ago, they wasted no time in digging up the past.

The distillery, which dates back to 1887, is now called Castle & Key. The main building is the castle, the lock-shaped springhouse is the key and the excavated gardens have a royal feel.

You could call Marianne Barnes the lady of the castle. At age 30, she's taken on a role normally held by gray-haired men.

She's the first female master distiller in the state since Prohibition. It's her job to come up with the recipes for the bourbon and maintain quality control.

"I wanted to be intimately involved with developing the products, creating the flavor profiles and operating the distillery," she said. " So it's my job at the end of the day to make sure what's going into the barrel is as high quality as we can make it."

Despite her age, she says she's gotten nothing but respect from others in the industry. She's a chemical engineer who started working in distilleries as a college intern.

"I love developing those flavors and seeing where they come from—the science behind it and also the nerdy engineering stuff like sizing a pump and figuring out the liquid-vapor equilibrium in the still that's going to create the perfect flavor," Barnes said.

She is often kidded about getting paid to drink on the job.

"Well, tasting on the job," she laughed. "We'll call it that because I'm not sitting in the barrel warehouse draining a barrel straight into my mouth like a lot of people think. I'm actually tasting for a purpose."

Barnes says there can be 200 flavors in a glass of bourbon and she can identify all of them. But the final taste test for the first barrels is still three and a half years away. The bourbon must sit in a warehouse and age, picking up flavors that only come with time.

She looks forward to November 2020.

"I can't imagine what it will be like, seeing the amber liquid flowing into the dump trough and tasting it as it goes into the bottles. It kind of gives you goosebumps."

It's a job that requires patience, a lot of trial and error, but for Marianne Barnes, being surrounded each day by history and mystery makes it all go down smoothly.

Castle & Key is also producing vodka and gin.

The distillery is working toward a late summer or early fall opening for public tours. Long-range plans include a hotel and restaurant.

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