Castle & Key and The Unimaginable Weight of History

Have you ever found yourself standing in a spot where, even if just for a single moment, you could almost sense the significance of the space around you? 

Growing up in its Northwest Suburbs, I was always reading about Chicago’s past. On train rides, in backseats, by flashlight at night – I immersed myself from a very young age in the triumphs and tragedies that played themselves out daily within its limits. 

When I can make it back home, I can’t go more than a few blocks without marveling at where I am in relation to the sprawling grounds of the 1893 World’s Fair, to any of Daniel Burnham’s buildings, or to the Water Tower made infamous by the Great Chicago Fire. Many area establishments have been in business long enough to have pictures adorning their walls from nearly a century earlier. The “before” images juxtaposed with the “after” of present day reality. Walking Chicago’s streets, it is impossible for me not to imagine the people that came before, how they built their future to become my present, and what they would think if they saw what had become of their dreams. Would they be elated? Given the opportunity to look back at it all and see what happens after, would I?

The only other places I’ve felt such an immense sense of what once had been were looking over Los Angeles from beneath the Hollywood sign at The Griffith Park Observatory, New York’s Times Square, and The Tower of London – destinations I hadn’t spent any part of my early life reading about but whose places in history had ensorceled me nevertheless. How did people make a go of it back then? Did people in an earlier time feel more connected to one another or less? Were they thinking the same thoughts we think now? Who now would flourish then, and vice versa? Is what I’m doing right in this moment honoring the lives they lived then? It’s always wild to think about, if not somewhat overwhelming.

I offer you all that to give context to what I imagine Will Arvin must have experienced in 2012 the first time he set foot on the Kentucky grounds of an 83 acre, 125 year old property that had lay abandoned for 40 years. These weren’t just any old buildings, though, or any old plot of land. I’m sure it didn’t feel ordinary either. No. From this place, the first 1 million U.S. Government certified cases of straight bourbon had been produced, using one of the world’s largest stills, and then stored in one of the longest bourbon warehouses in existence.

This was the site of The Old Taylor Distillery, and Will felt the full tonnage not only of what had come before, but what could come next. The official story goes that “at the distillery, Will found caved-in roofs, boarded-up windows and doors, and vegetation so overgrown he had to use a flashlight — in the middle of the day — to navigate.” He would then invite Wes Murry to the site in hopes that he would have the same experience and see the same vision for the future.

Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. is considered the father of the modern bourbon Industry. One imagines that he too felt the heaviness of a time before his own, for he was descendant of US Presidents James Madison and General Zachary Taylor. He revolutionized the methods, materials, and processes of distillation – so much so that much of what he put in place is still in use today throughout the industry. Most important, it could be argued, was his vital role in the passage of the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 – which protected consumers from adulterated spirits. The act codified what a whiskey, bourbon, etc was, and was not. No more diluting. No more replacing. Now, the stuff in the bottle you were buying had to be what it said it was under penalty of law.

Prohibition would force the distillery to close its doors by 1917. Old Taylor and the other big operations at the time were prevented from creating any new batches, but were allowed to sell what they had already made. The distillery would reopen under new ownership after prohibition ended and pass hands a few more times, eventually being sold for literal scraps in the early 2000’s. According to a 2016 piece from Distillery Trail, the only reason that the property hadn’t been torn down completely by the time Will got there was because of the 2008 housing crisis and the impact it had on just about everything.

By 2014, Will and Wes had formed a company and would purchase the distillery and all of its acreage, in a condition that they describe as “in ruins.” The name of this new endeavor? Castle and Key. Rather than building new structures in place of what once had been, they put together a team to restore The Old Taylor Distillery to its original state. Through hard work, focus and the legacy of E.H. Taylor pushing them forward, in 2016 construction would be completed and the stills put to use.

Regular readers will know that I gravitate toward the kinds of stories that would seem unbelievable had they not actually happened, so take everything we’ve learned so far into account as you travel with me to 2016, wherein one of the largest and most respected family of brands sues Castle & Key for using the Taylor name. Imagine you’re Will and Wes and you’re 4 years into this venture when this happens, will you have to change everything after all this work?

To be fair, the company that owns the “Old Taylor” and “Colonel E.H. Taylor” trademarks had to sue. It is their fiduciary duty to protect the integrity of their brands. Fortunately for Will and Wes and the team they had built, the court found in favor of Castle & Key. The Judge determined that rather than using the Taylor name in bad faith, Castle & Key was simply taking advantage of the rich historical significance of a place that was inherently granted in their purchase of such a landmark property. What ended up being most important was that Castle & Key had not put the Taylor name on any products, only ever using it in marketing collateral to describe the actual property by its legitimate name.

Now, in 2022, 10 years since that first visit to a run-down complex in the capital city of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the seat of Franklin County, the first batches of Castle & Key bourbon have now been bottled and made available to the public with more on the way.

It’s a wild kind of of thing to think about, these new offerings being created there after four decades of inactivity and well over a century of rich history. It evokes cinematic imagery of lights turning back on throughout the restored buildings, of life being let back in, and of a new idea rippling out into the world. New jobs, new dreams, new opportunities and the thread of a new legacy for the next generation to pull at in their own search for what they’ll create and then watch change.

To be so sure of a place’s magic that you devote a decade to it before one drop is even sold, that is the power of the past.