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First female Master Distiller helping bring back Golden Age of state’s signature spirit

Master Distiller Marianne Barnes speaks to the crowd at a bourbon-tasting at Prohibition Bar in Newport. (Photos by Shelly Whitehead)

Master Distiller Marianne Barnes speaks to the crowd at a bourbon-tasting in Newport. (Photos by Shelly Whitehead)


By Shelly Whitehead
Special to KyForward

From all outward appearances, Marianne Barnes would seem to be an unlikely candidate to be the world’s first female bourbon master distiller since Prohibition.

This lithe 28-year-old woman grew up in a dry county outside Louisville in a home where a lone bottle of Jim Beam sat unused in the cabinet, gathering dust for decades while a younger Marianne honed her chemistry skills.

Marianne Barnes  at work (Old Taylor Distillery photo)

On the job at Old Taylor Distillery, Marianne Barnes is part chemist, part detective, part chef and part historian. (Old Taylor Distillery photo)

When she headed off to the University of Louisville, her dad suggested she consider the lucrative field of chemical engineering. He was probably taken aback when, during her sophomore year at the Speed School, his “little girl” opted to take an educational co-op internship with Brown-Forman Distilleries.

“As a college student the Brown-Forman internship was the one that everybody wanted, so I was like, ‘Yeah! Why in the world would you make fuel with corn when you can make bourbon with it?

“So it seemed like a pretty easy choice, and I knew that would look great on a resume so I ended up having an amazing opportunity and experience there.”

Thus began the unlikely love affair of Marianne Barnes with bourbon. Brown-Forman loved her and, in fact, soon promoted her to the venerable old distiller’s lofty spot of Master Taster, proving that she not only had a mind for making sour mash but a palate to match.

That combination soon helped her land her current role as Master Distiller and co-owner at the former Old Taylor Distillery in Woodford County, where she and two partners are renovating the crumbling structure and grounds from the first Golden Age of Bourbon back in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

And if you thought that her Master Distiller title was just some kind of marketing gimmick for the re-emerging distillery, you will quickly learn otherwise when you hear her speak.

At one recent event, in Newport in Northern Kentucky, Barnes relayed the fascinating tale of restoring Col. Edmund H. Taylor’s 128-year-old castle-like distillery near Frankfort to its former glory. And how she is leading the process to give birth to the historic site’s first batch of bourbon since 1972.


To do that, she is unraveling the complex signature chemical code found inside a 1917-era batch of the colonel’s original recipe uncovered in the dusty cabinet of a nearby horse farm.

“I am responsible for building the production process and building the product. We sent that (old sample) to a lab to get some analysis done and they told us what the yeast from that mash-build probably would have been,” she said.

“We’re looking at a yeast strain that has similar genetics. It’s been a fascinating process because we’re also unearthing all this history (at the site) and tracing lines to figure out how all the liquids flowed through the distillery back then.”

Master Distiller’s role

A typical day for this doyenne of distilling may start in her office where she brews in an assortment of vats as part of her work to discover the best-tasting bourbon recipe that still has a chemical allegiance to the stuff the old colonel brewed years ago. Then she may travel to a farm hours away to talk to one of the few growers in Kentucky still planting rye about strains of that grain and their role in the final product.

She is, in fact, part chemist, part detective, part chef and part historian. The results of her work will hopefully pay off big for the owners of this brand in three or four years.

Here are just a few of the fun things she’s discovered during her investigations of the old brew and distillery thus far:

The original Old Taylor bourbon actually used an heirloom white corn, instead of yellow corn.

Barnes’ new recipe will use more rye that the Colonel’s did and that rye will come from Kentucky.

The original distillery was not only the home of elegant sunken gardens and Roman bath-like spaces, but also of one of the best Derby parties ever, where party-goers were brought in by festooned stagecoach from far and wide.

Old Taylor Distillery

Old Taylor Distillery

The icing on this bourbon-saturated cake is that such an old and traditional distillery is leading the bourbon industry in its naming of the very first female master distiller. But maybe that’s just the way the colonel would have had it. After all, the person credited with coming up with the distilling process in the first place is, in fact, a woman – Maria the Jewess in the third century B.C.

So perhaps the gentlemen who have dominated this particular industry’s highest office for so long should put down their drinks and take notice. This lady knows her stuff, and her crowd of supporters is rapidly growing.

“I just want to support her that’s why I’m here,” said Chris Brady, an Indian Hill man who snapped up tickets to the Newport event as soon as he heard about it for himself and his wife.

“It’s a very male-dominated industry and when I saw that she is the first female Master Distiller for bourbon since Prohibition, I couldn’t buy the tickets fast enough. . .The female perspective always makes things better.”

Shelly Whitehead is a regular contributor to KyForward media partner the NKyTribune.com, where this story first appeared.

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