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Meet The First Woman Master Bourbon Distiller in Modern Times

Sometime next year, a new bourbon distillery will open at the site of the former Old Taylor Distillery near Frankfort. Leading the project is master distiller Marianne Barnes, the first woman to hold the title in modern times.

The forthcoming distillery is backed by Will Arvin and Wesley Murry, who asked Barnes to partner with them. The distillery would breathe new life into an abandoned 130-acre property that was once a grand showplace for historic distiller Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr.

For Barnes, a chemical engineer, the journey to being part of a distillery as it’s built from the ground up has been a surprise.

Barnes got her start in the whiskey business in 2009, when she was offered a coveted internship with Brown-Forman, the Louisville company that owns big bourbon brands such as Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. Before that, she said, she wasn’t much of a bourbon drinker.

“I knew I was working for a whiskey company, and I said I better start learning to like it because they were training me to be a taste-tester,” she said.

Barnes eventually became a master tester with Brown-Forman and was also next in line to become Brown-Forman’s master distiller. But then she was given the opportunity to use everything she learned there to start a project of her own.

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As a result, Barnes became not only one of the youngest master distillers in the state, but also, according to industry watchers, the first woman in modern day to have the title of bourbon master distiller.

Women have been making bourbon for almost two centuries, bourbon historian Mike Veach said. But it's still novel for modern times.

“A woman who inherited a distillery from her second husband distilled whiskey in 1818,” he said.

In those days, the title “master distiller” didn't exist — it was just distillers and yeast makers, Veach said. The "master distiller" designation was borne out of the bourbon boom and the rise in bourbon tourism.

“You know when a person drives all the way across the country to visit a distillery, they want to meet the master distiller,” Veach said.

Barnes' ascent in the industry could be explained, in part, by an increase in women drinking bourbon, both Veach and Barnes said. The bourbon boom has been sustained not just by a resurgence of consumer interest in dark liquor, but also by the diversifying demographics of people drinking whiskey.

“There are so many women that I am meeting and so many new groups for ladies who enjoy the brown spirits,” Barnes said.

It was just a matter of time before women also started playing bigger roles in the industry, too, she said.

“It’s been a change that’s long coming, I think,” Barnes said. “It was going to happen at some point, whether it’s me or the next person in line.”

With the bourbon boom in full swing, Barnes said now is the perfect time to revitalize the former Old Taylor distillery site.

The plot — complete with a stone castle and formal garden — was abandoned in the 1970s, a down period in the whiskey industry. Col. Taylor used the property to entertain guests and to show people how his whiskey was made. This was a time well before bourbon tourism existed.

“We want to bring this place back because it was so important to the industry,” Barnes said. “But also use it in a similar way. Bring a differentiated experience to the bourbon trail.”

Arvin, Barnes and Murry haven’t released the name of the new distillery yet.

Work on the site has been ongoing and will continue before distilling can begin. Barnes said the first item on the to-do list was digging out the buildings and various structures on the property.

“You couldn’t get through,” Barnes said. “There was just a tiny dirt path that wound its way through the center of the site. You had to cut away decades of trees and weeds and growth that had come up around the buildings to even get inside.”

The next task is running pipes throughout the property. Barnes said the plan is to keep the bones and spirit of the site intact.

Veach said the distillery will be an exciting addition to Kentucky’s bourbon scene. Many of the craft distillers that have popped up during the boom “aren’t that good," he said. But he's optimistic about Barnes.

“I’ve tasted some of the stuff that she’s made in the pilot still, and it’s damn good,” Veach said.

Barnes is still tinkering, though. Since bourbon takes years to age, it will be awhile before the distillery’s signature product hits shelves.

In the meantime, Barnes is creating a bourbon drinker’s gin to get the new distillery off the ground. A rye and malt whiskey is possibly in the works. Barnes said figuring out the taste and process for all these products is her favorite part of the job.

She's confident about entering the bourbon market at a time when demand is soaring faster than production. And she said bourbon has a solid future.

“A lot of that comes from the fact that the big players, the big-name distilleries, are investing millions of dollars and building new warehouses and quadrupling their bourbon inventory,” Barnes said.

Featured photo of Marianne Barnes at Old Taylor Distillery by Ashley Lopez/WFPL News. 


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