Marianne Barnes encompasses everything we love here at Skepchick: science, nerdery, women kicking ass, and booze. As the first female master Kentucky bourbon distiller at 28 years old, she’s an inspiration for whiskey geeks and women in STEM alike. Barnes is now at the helm of the upcoming Castle & Key Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, at the historical site of the Old Taylor Distillery (as in Colonel E.H. Taylor, a legend among bourbon lovers). And as I learned during our phone conversation, she is an absolute delight.
You’re so accomplished at only 28; you strike me as incredibly driven. Have you always known that you wanted to distill?
No, not always. I thought I’d be doing renewable energy, biodiesel. I did automotive in high school and at one point I even thought I’d be a diesel mechanic. But I wound up just falling in love with this industry. I found an internship at [wine and spirits producer] Brown-Forman; I was young in and in college and it was an internship everyone wanted. I found it very interesting and challenging in unexpected ways, and I fell in love with it.
I read that you can distinguish hundreds of aromas. Are you a “super taster”?
That skill was developed while I was working at Brown-Forman, but I’ve always known that I had a very sensitive smell. I just didn’t know that it translates into sense of taste!
You’re a vegan. Is that a culture clash in your line of work?
[Laughs] I haven’t had anyone give me a hard time about it. For me being vegan has really helped my palate, because before, I had a very limited diet; I was very picky and growing up I didn’t realize it was because I had a very sensitive sense of taste, so everything tasted gross. Becoming a vegan was for animal reasons, but I found out that I really do like all these fruits and vegetables and grains that I’d never tried before. Now I can pick up those notes in a glass of whiskey. So being vegan has really opened and expanded my palate.
I’ve been to a couple of spirits and food pairing dinners. What do you think about whiskey and food pairing? Is whiskey conducive to that?
Especially now that cocktails are more like making a dish, as we’re getting bar chefs making their own bitters and other ingredients fresh behind the bar and all the different beautiful garnishes, looking at it from that angle, absolutely. Thinking about different types of of nuts and dried or fresh fruits, I do enjoy a really nice bourbon and food pairing. Even though the array of different foods might be more limited, there are hundreds of vegan cheeses and meat alternatives so it’s definitely possible for me to do that sort of thing.
Walk me through a typical workday for you.
That’s the hardest question to answer because what I’m doing right now is not typical. Generally it’s passed down from one master distiller to the next—there’s an established distillery and recipes developed and you take the reins and run. This distillery hasn’t been run in over 40 years, so I’m designing an entirely new process using some of the old equipment, developing new recipes and the process of how they’ll be made, and sourcing the ingredients, so no two days are alike. Once we get up and running and operational I’ll be responsible for checking the grain and monitoring the operations and checking the spirits when they’re aging and ultimately being responsible for the quality of what goes into the bottle.
I understand Castle & Key is aiming to create an especially cool visitor experience, similar to what wineries offer. How would you describe the distillery’s whiskey style?
The bourbon is going to be a very traditional style because we’re using some of Colonel Taylor’s original whiskey he made here on-site. We’re not making the E.H. Taylor brand but we are trying to emulate a little bit of that original style—the white corn recipe, a lower percent rye, higher malted barley—and we’re scraping the walls of the old tanks and the pipelines to find a similar yeast strain that he might have used. We did find some yeast, but it was an Icelandic wild yeast that we ultimately settled on.
That’s too cool! How did you find that?
We invited some guys out from Farm Solutions, which makes yeast fermentation aids and enzymes. I had heard of them and wanted them to come out to see the distillery and bring some sampling things to find some yeast here on site. This was before even the lights were turned on. We found a pipe that had been cut in half and it was just full of petrified mash and we thought, if there’s a yeast strain anywhere in this building, this is where it would be. They took it back to their lab and ran tests on it, and they also took back a whiskey sample distilled here in 1917 to do some analysis from that. Between those two we have a very good idea of the grain recipe and DNA profile of a genetically similar yeast strain.
How much of what you do is science, engineering, chemistry, etc. versus an art and a craft? Do you see yourself as more of an engineer, an artist, or something in between?
Blending whiskey is more of a tactile thing. You can run tests and get some analytical results, but even sample to sample, different chemicals don’t always taste and feel the same in your mouth and can even be different colors depending on barrel extraction. When I got out of college I could have gone and built a very efficient ethanol plant, but it wouldn’t have tasted good! I could have whipped together some corn and yeast and made alcohol, but it wouldn’t be the spirit I hope to make today because of that training I’ve had, especially with Master Distiller Chris Morris, on understanding flavor development and understanding the art and the passion of distilling.
Does whiskey feel like work for you, or do you go home and have a cocktail?
Not every night, but yes, I do. I really do enjoy it. After a hard day of tasting in the warehouse all day long I may not drink at night just to give my liver a rest! But when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.
I saw in your Twitter bio that you’re into “nerdy stuff.” So are we. Any examples?
The engineering and the science and chemical reactions that happen in the process of distilling; the slightest adjustments change the way the spirit tastes dramatically. The science of it really excites me. It’s learning how science and nature overlap to make this incredible drink.
Do you have a favorite book about whiskey, distilling, or beverage science?
I try and read at least one book a month, sometimes distilling-related or business-related but a lot of times they are just fun books. Right now I’m reading Fundamentals of Distillery Practice, working my way through that. It was written by the scientist at Seagram’s distillery and it’s known as the whiskey bible for folks in distilling. The funny thing about it is it was released ten years after the end of Prohibition. Just thinking of all the science they’d figured out in that period of time is amazing; it’s still a really good guide today.
What was your biggest challenge as a beginner in this industry? Any advice for young women who want to get into distilling?
Coming into it from science and engineering is a great way to do it. The most difficult part is just getting your foot in the door. I was fortunate that I knew someone working at Brown-Forman and that they selected me based on my skills and the way I presented myself and all that good stuff. It’s very important to remember, for the alcohol industry in particular, that my job will always be both PR and production—I’ll never be able to focus 100% on the distillery. It’s doing interviews, like this one (which I love!) and honing communication skills and loving people and wanting to teach. It’s having the science and technical passion and adopting the heart of a teacher.
Featured image of Marianne Barnes courtesy of The Malicotes