Exclusive First Look: Castle & Key Launches Long-Awaited Restoration Rye Whiskey

Castle & Key Restoration Rye Whiskey. Courtesy Photo.

A visit to Castle & Key isn’t your standard distillery tour. Sure, there are fermenters and stills and barrels, but the entire guest experience is elevated – you’re ushered into manicured grounds and sunken gardens designed by the famous Jon Carloftis, your tour group is tiny with a private feel, the gift shop is full of Barbour, and, oh, it all takes place in and around a literal castle.  

So you’d expect their long-awaited rye whiskey to feel top shelf too, and it does, with gold hardware, a custom glass bottle mold reminiscent of their famous springhouse, and a trendy-looking label. (It drinks top shelf, as well, but we’ll get to that.) The price tag, however, is anything but, at an affordable $39.99. Proving that for Castle & Key, it’s truly about the hospitality – rolling out a red carpet for each and every person that visits their distillery or sips their spirits. And really, that’s what E.H. Taylor intended when he first built the distillery in 1887. 

The spring at Castle & Key. Courtesy Photo.

A Welcoming Whiskey Legacy

After losing his spot on top at what is now Buffalo Trace, the famous Taylor moved just a few miles outside Frankfort to begin construction on what still may be the most beautiful distillery in Kentucky. Welcoming train cars of friends and fans, Taylor treated his guests like royalty, greeting them with cocktails, leading them through a gorgeous key-shaped springhouse, and boasting the world’s longest rick house to age his Old Taylor bourbon.

Prohibition hit in 1920, closing the distillery’s doors, and Taylor passed just 3 years later in 1923. Although the Old Taylor label lasted decades after his death, the property eventually fell into disuse and almost total ruin. It laid abandoned for almost 50 years before it was purchased by a group of local investors in 2014. Will Arvin and Wes Murry loved the property from the moment they laid eyes on it, spending the last six years restoring crumbling architecture and overgrown gardens, and reopening to tours in 2018.

And today, the whiskey is finally flowing again at Taylor’s castle. 

The sun rises over Castle & Key in Frankfort, Kentucky. Courtesy Photo.

Blending Batches 1 & 2

Creating the blends for the Restoration Rye didn’t happen overnight. While established distilleries (and their fans) have favorite rick houses, and even favorite floors within each rick house, Castle & Key had to start from scratch, searching for honey barrels through hundreds of ricks. 

“We are still “babies” here, and just how the barrels age in the rick house is still kind of unknown,” says Castle & Key quality manager Jon Brown. “Some distilleries have been around for hundreds of years, knowing where their sweet spots are and what different warehouses do, so we have to take a lot of samples and do a lot of sensory evaluation. I’d say once every six months I’ve been pulling barrels and trying them, so especially with this being our first launch, we pulled every single barrel to sample them back in the summer.” 

The distillery has a sensory team of about 12 people, who had the daunting task of tasting through every barrel of whiskey the distillery had laid down for the project, each crafted with a recipe of 63% rye, 17% yellow corn, and 20% malted barley. Working through 20 to 40 barrels a week, at least 5 people on the team individually evaluated each barrel, scoring for flavor components like dark fruit, spice, wood, and more. The team then created five barrel blends, or “pods,” to use as building blocks for the final blends. 

“The majority of the pods were a baseline of rye whiskey, and then we built some pods that were outliers, some with pronounced citrus character, some that were heavier on the dark fruit, and stuff,” explains brand ambassador and blender Brett Connors. “So those we used to build the profile we were looking for the final blend.

“What Jon and the sensory team did, it just made it a lot more efficient for me– if I’m blending for a client, I’m individually tasting 70 barrels, and trying to build these, and some of its guesswork. But this made it easy to go through and say, hey, we need another foundational piece, let’s find five barrels that will interact well.”

Castle & Key Restoration Rye Whiskey Batch 1 is made up of 60 barrels and clocks in at 103 proof. It’s not cask strength, nor do they intend to keep the same proof point for further batches – it’s just what the sensory team loved best for this particular array of barrels. On the nose, we’re told to look for brown sugar, cinnamon toast, dried figs, pipe tobacco, baking chocolate, and orange peel, with sweet baking spice, caramelized sugar, dried currants, lightly roasted almonds, and a hint of black licorice on the palate. Light hints of maple syrup and dark honey lead to a sweet finish. 

“Batch 1 is a little bit more classically rye, where its spice-driven, more bullish and assertive, and has a really big cinnamon quality to it, nice fruit interaction, a little citrus. A little bit of licorice and currant – it just feels perfect for the holidays,” says Connors.

Restoration Rye Batch 2 consists of just 57 barrels bottled at 99 proof with a bright nose of lemon peel, toasted oak, apricot, wild flower, honey, and graham crackers. Pie crust, honeysuckle, mint, agave nectar, dry cinnamon, and light stone fruit on the palate give way to a cooling spearmint finish. This is most likely the only time we’ll be treated to two batches at once – the distillery expects future releases to hit shelves one at a time.

“Batch 2 is a little bit more subtle, more grain-bright, really nice where I can just drink the hell out of 2 because its so much softer,” says Connors. “It’s only four proof points in differential but 2 is a little bit more likely to be universally appreciated because a bourbon drinker is gonna like Batch 2. It’s bright, floral, lighter, with more young rye characteristics like cut hay, and it doesn’t taste as old as Batch 1, but I kind of like that cause it just shows the dynamics of the way those barrels are interacting.”

“Right now we are anticipating doing a spring release and a fall release every single year,” says sales manager Jon Newton. “The hope is to continue to increase allocation within each of those batches but we’ll have some ups and downs and it will continue to be driven by what’s ready and what tastes the best. As of right now, we have another rye release coming next spring.” 

Warehouse B, the longest warehouse of its kind in the world. Courtesy Photo.

Walking Through the Warehouse

As further demonstration of the distillery’s hospitality, they’re inviting fans from around the world inside their blending process (virtually) and letting you take a look at exactly what makes up the final batch. 

“One of the things we’re doing that we think will really resonate with the whiskey nerds – all those things Jon [Brown] just said talking about the pods, that isn’t just for internal use,” says Newton. “We’re going to have that live on our website. So since we are taking this very vintage-dated approach, and intentionally altering the flavor profile between each release, you can pick up a bottle of Castle & Key, see Castle & Key Restoration Rye 2020 Batch 1, you can go onto our website, and we will have kind of a “Batch DNA,” where we will have the serial number of every single barrel that went into the blend, the ages, and the flavor profile of each pod and how they contributed to the total blend. And we acknowledge that there’s less than one percent of the population that really cares about this, but the ones that do will really really care about it. There’s always been this kind of mystery and mystique around blending and we hope to pull back the curtain on it.” 

Once the blends were complete, the team proofed them to perfection and ran only a basic filtration on them before bottling.

“Other than a pad filter, we don’t even carbon filter them,” says Connors. “They’re not only non-chill filtered, they’re also not carbon filtered. This is literally just a pad filter to remove char etc. We haven’t tried it with ice but maybe it will flock. We don’t really mind if it does, I think consumer education around that is getting a lot better.”

Flocking, the small amount of cloudy or fluffy looking lipids left in an unfiltered whiskey, can become more visible in the cold and isn’t always appealing to drinkers. However, with new trends pushing for non-chill filtered or unfiltered whiskey, modern whiskey lovers are likely to ignore the fluff at the bottom of the bottle as a trade off for a richer mouthfeel and more flavor.

“And usually above 93 to 95 proof, you don’t have to worry about flocking,” adds Brown.

Castle & Key Restoration Rye Whiskey. Courtesy Photo.

Castle & Key Spirits Expand

While we’re thrilled to finally have our hands on a bottle of Castle & Key rye, one question does remain. When will see a bourbon?

“The Castle & Key team anticipates the bourbon being ready in 2021, but at the end of the day its ready when its ready,” says Newton. 

The rye is aged an average of just under four years, meaning the bourbon will most likely be four to five when it is finally bottled.

“The age statement on the rye bottle is 3 years old, because we wanted it to be a full number, but the youngest barrel in the rye blend is around 3 years, 5 months, and the average age is around 3 years, 10 months,” says Connors.

When asked about future expressions like single barrel or barrel strength, the team stays vague. 

“We’re not going to force it if it’s not there, and we’re always going to put the emphasis on quality over quantity,” says Newton. 

“I think the problem is that we found single barrels, but a lot of them ended up in the blend,” explains Connors. “One barrel really can impact the entire blend. There was a small pod called Q, just a three barrel set, that we tried not to use because all three barrels were absolute monsters, but the problem is without those three barrels you can instantly tell they weren’t in the blend. So we ended up having to use them for the blend, which is always kind of a strategic approach.”

Updated Castle & Key Spirits labels. Courtesy Photo.

In tandem with the launch of their Restoration Rye, Castle & Key is also unveiling a rebrand of their locally lauded vodka and gin, with a focus on the distillery grounds and garden that have so much impact on their distillation. Their vodka, made with water from their natural spring and their bourbon mash recipe, and their gin, made with seasonal botanicals grown on site and their rye mash recipe, will both now be found in the updated bottle.

“We’re leaning pretty heavily into this idea of consistency of quality over consistency of flavor,” says Newton. “Altering the flavor profile not just among different vintages but among batches, altering proof point to make sure the flavors are showing best, we think that there’s a pretty cool opportunity here to connect with consumers in the way that they drink nowadays. How many times do you go home and pour yourself the same glass night after night? It probably never happens. We understand that people are looking for variety, they want different experiences, so rather than forcing a product strategy and taking unique, beautiful barrels and forcing them into a consistent flavor profile, we’re listening to what our consumers are saying and want to give them a product that resonates with the way they’re enjoying spirits now. So hopefully they’ll appreciate the variety of flavor.”

Castle & Key Restoration Rye Batch 1 & 2 will be arriving on shelves in Kentucky, Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, and Georgia in early December for around $40. Bottles will be available at the distillery Friday, December 4th. Reservations are required to purchase – link here to make yours.

Caroline Paulus
Caroline Paulus is the Senior Editor for The Bourbon Review. She lives and writes in Lexington, Kentucky. Follow her on Instagram @misswhiskeyhistorian to keep up with her latest in bourbon news - and a few old finds, too.