Sipping Kentucky Bourbon With Master Distiller Marianne Eaves

As the first woman named master distiller, Marianne Eaves has “big ideas” about the next life of bourbon.

Sipping Kentucky Bourbon With Master Distiller Marianne Eaves

At Castle & Key, master distiller Marianne Eaves has what she called a “fairy-tale job.”

Courtesy of Marianne Eaves

In 2015, Marianne Eaves made history when she was named master distiller at Frankfort, Kentucky–based distillery Castle & Key—a title that ruffled some industry feathers.

“A lot of people questioned whether I had the right to take that credential,” she says. Some argued that it needed to be bestowed by a veteran distiller, “like a knighthood.”

The Kentucky bourbon industry is notably insular, dominated by conglomerates with legacy family ties and still largely run by white men. Those demographics have eroded somewhat over time, as upstarts and outsiders have built distilleries, but just like good whiskey takes time to age, true progress has moved slowly in bourbon circles.

For Eaves, earning that title was the culmination of nearly a decade of training: pursuing a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville, followed by five years at Brown-Forman, the company behind legacy whiskey brands including Woodford Reserve, Old Forester, and Jack Daniels. There, she climbed from intern to master taster, mentored by master distiller Chris Morrison.

Of course, Eaves had no intention of relinquishing the honorific. She stayed on with Castle & Key, at what she now calls a “fairy-tale job” relaunching a distillery and “bourbon castle” on the crumbling site of the former Old Taylor Distillery, which had been out of commission since 1972. By the time she left, the reinvigorated facility was making vodka, gin, bourbon, and rye whiskey.

How can I continue to shape the future of what bourbon can look like and what is possible? I have lots of big ideas about what I can contribute and where this all can go.

All fairy tales come to an end, though. In 2019, she established herself as a freelance bourbon consultant—and hit the road full-time to live in an RV and travel with her partner Kevin Venardos, a circus producer, and their two children, the youngest born at the end of August. The nomadic life suits her, she says.

“I get really excited about figuring out new spaces,” she says. “The sense of exploration is worth the inconvenience of [wondering] will I have a bank branch where I’m going? Where do I get groceries? Where’s the post office?”

By November, a mobile laboratory will be rolling behind the trailer, a custom-converted Freightliner box truck from the circus where Eaves can blend bourbons for product development trials, conduct tastings, and bring in friends and colleagues. “It’s going to look like a laboratory inside, but more elegant,” she says.

One of her greatest motivators is thinking creatively about the next life of bourbon: “How can I continue to shape the future of what bourbon can look like and what is possible? I have lots of big ideas about what I can contribute and where this all can go.”

During the pandemic, she also launched Eaves Blind, a subscription that distributes small batch and single barrel spirits curated by Eaves. The kits, which include opaque black Glencairn glasses, are designed to encourage blind tasting (meaning participants don’t know what’s in the glass), which is standard practice for wine pros, but not often seen in the spirits industry. Intended for a consumer audience, members can improve their tasting skills through two programming levels: apprentice (for those new to spirits) and aficionado (for more advanced tasters).

While her first love remains bourbon, her vision expands beyond a single style of whiskey. Today, her client list includes a wide range of spirits producers, from celebrity-owned Tennessee distillery Sweetens Cove (Peyton Manning and Andy Roddick are backers) to a producer building the first whiskey distillery in China. In addition, she’s been working on a rum project slated to launch this year, she says, and has been consulting with a California winery turning smoke-damaged wine into high-end brandy. Still, her first love remains bourbon.

By carving a untraditional path, Eaves continues to show that there’s more than one way to build a career—and a life—while working within the spirits industry. A key barometer of change: She’s no longer the only woman to hold a “master” designation in the Kentucky bourbon world. Look to Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve, Eaves’s former stomping grounds, or Jane Bowie, master of maturation/director of innovation at Maker’s Mark.

Looking ahead, Eaves aspires to continue to overcome stereotypes for women, particularly young women, coming up in the still overwhelmingly male-dominated business.

“I feel like that’s starting to change,” she says. “Being visible is helping what people see when they Google ‘master distiller.’ It’s starting to open people’s minds about who can take up space, and who the experts are.”

>>Next: 13 Trips to Fuel Your Passions

Kara Newman writes about food, drink and travel, and is the author of seven cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip., about equal-parts drinks.
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