women in whiskey
Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.
Marianne Eaves: Master Distiller Moves
Ever dream of running away to the circus? No? Well then have you wished that you could just get behind the wheel, head out onto the open road, and travel the country? More likely.
For this month’s Women in Whiskey, meet Marianne Eaves, who DID make it work. Following her love for science and engineering lead her to the whiskey industry. Six years into her career, she went from learning about spirit production to becoming Kentucky’s First Female Master Distiller since Prohibition and is now on the open road with her family. Last month, Marianne took an hour out of her RV life to chat with me about her (figurative and literal) journey.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Marianne studied Chemical Engineering at University of Louisville. She was passionate about the environment and dreamed of working in renewable energy. She wasn’t a whiskey lover (yet). Her preferred spirits of choice at the time were tequila and rum; she often drank cocktails like Captain [Morgan] & Coke or liked to pop open a Smirnoff Ice.
When offered an internship at Brown-Forman, in what would soon be a “Marianne move”, she “went for it”. She was excited to start and geek out in Research & Development, learning technical things like filtration trials and analytical testing. Her academic knowledge was useful towards optimizing procedures as she transitioned into working on production and engineering for their global product portfolio. (In addition to whiskey, Marianne worked on other spirits such as tequila and liqueurs.)
A “Palatable” Promotion
Marianne knew the importance of developing her palate. At 16, she became a vegetarian, then a pescatarian for 10 years, and today she’s a proud vegan. While initially for ethical reasons, limiting the scope of her diet to exclude animal products heightened her olfactory and tasting abilities. (It’s rumored that she can identify over 200 tasting notes in a whiskey.)
Then, Marianne took it a step further outside of “work hours”. She sought out as many food and beverage experiences she could find – from classes (cooking, spices) to documentaries, and even making her own scent pots.
Marianne credits the support from the program and her colleagues with learning to grow both her whiskey knowledge and palate, like fellow University of Louisville alumnus, Kevin Smith, Jack Daniel’s Distillery Manager. She worked the night shift at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery and was amazed at the volume of whiskey that could be made by a small team of 4-5 people. (While we don’t have production numbers from those years, to give you an idea of volume, today Jack Daniel’s current sales volume is 10 million annually. Source: Brown-Forman).
I asked her for a favorite memory and Marianne cited being a sensory panelist and selecting a barrel for an Old Forester Single Barrel expression. Her passion and drive lead to a promotion to Master Taster, working directly with Master Distiller, Chris Morris. She taught classes for the Bourbon Academy at the Woodford Reserve Distillery, as well as both consumer and industry tastings.
While in this public facing role, Marianne continued to work behind the scenes on process engineering as well. In 2015, she earned a place in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list (“a collection of bold risk-takers putting a new twist on the old tools of the trade”) in the category of Food & Drink.
Marianne’s career path at Brown-Forman was on the rise, but little did she know that a bigger opportunity was literally down the road.
A “Taylor” Made Opportunity
With these accolades, it’s not surprising that when Wes Murry and Will Arvin decided to buy the defunct Old Taylor Distillery in Millville, Kentucky, they would reach out to Marianne.
[Whiskey Geekout: Old Taylor Distillery was built in 1887 by E.H. Taylor, Jr. aka “The Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry”. His nickname was earned due to innovations that included column stills, a new steam heating system, and the latest in grain equipment. He was also known for being an outspoken advocate for the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act that called for standardizing the legal definition of whiskey and government certification, like an early “truth in advertising” for labels on whiskey bottles. In fact, Old Taylor is the first US distillery to produce one million cases of “straight bourbon whiskey” under regulation. The distillery was designed as a castle, complete with estate grounds, to attract visitors. It was sold in 1935 (Taylor had already passed) and merged with Old Crew, then shut down in 1972, putting it on numerous “abandoned places” lists until 2014.]
While Marianne had heard rumors that a pair of lawyers bought the property, she didn’t expect to be contacted by Wes and, according to her, didn’t take it seriously at first. Then one winter day, she drove the few miles down the road to meet him and, awestruck by the eerily beautiful, dilapidated site, said that she would be open to consulting.
It turns out they didn’t want her advice, but for her to be onboard from the start of what would turn out to be a $30 million USD, 4 ½ year restoration. It was a tough decision for Marianne to leave Brown-Forman; she loved her work and the people. But she couldn’t pass up the chance to be on the actual ground floor of a project that included a whiskey distillery restoration, a business partner stake, and would name her Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller since Prohibition.
Marianne was part of the day-to-day of the construction rebuild and restoration, given full control over the entire whiskey making process, and helped promote the new distillery, named Castle & Key. Distilling began in November 2016 and Marianne “channeled the spirit of the Colonel” as she tasted vintage E.H. Taylor and worked on creating recipes that would pay proper homage; she ended up with four bourbon recipes and two rye recipes using two mash bills and two yeast strains.
While the whiskey aged, Marianne produced vodka and gin. Media once again celebrated her in America’s Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers (Wine Enthusiast Magazine), and she was featured in the 2018 Bourbon documentary “Neat: The Story of Bourbon”, as the only female distiller amongst names such as Jimmy Russell, Fred Noe, and Freddie Johnson, and one of two females featured in the film. (The other is Jackie Zykan, Master Taster of Old Forester.)
Then, in 2019, Marianne announced her departure from Castle & Key to be a consultant, in addition to media projects that would include documentaries, book, speaking, digital, and culinary projects. Castle & Key also released a statement thanking her for all her contributions and wishing her luck. Of her time at Castle & Key, Marianne complimented her former colleagues and company, but stated that “as the whiskey matured, so did I”.
Her next step? Joining the circus, of course! (Well, sort of.)
Turns out her partner, Kevin, actually does own a circus, and she started on the road life with him and two cats as she considered various work offers that came her way. She continued to educate people on whiskey, such as the 2019 Bourbon & Beyond (“The World’s Largest Bourbon Festival”). And after a brief media respite, she came back on the scene with her first TEDx Talk, “Making the Impossible and Doing the Unthinkable".
Marianne continued touring around the country, visiting distilleries along the way, and then her beautiful baby girl, Andi, was born in March 2020. She was able to spend time with her and when the pandemic hit, was already well equipped for working remotely and integrating family life.
From Smoke Infused Brandy to a “Field of Dreams” Bourbon
Marianne’s first major consulting project was with Lindsay Hoopes, of Hoopes Vineyard in Napa Valley, California. The 2017 wildfires had damaged the crop, and Lindsay was looking for ways to rescue the grapes. They met at an event in 2018 and chatted about the idea of using what they now call “smoke infused” grapes for distilling brandy. Now Marianne was able to move forward with this project, starting with brandy, as well as working on a sweet vermouth and gin; product estimate availability to be at the end of this year or early 2022.
Her next high-profile project was back East as Master Blender for Sweeten’s Cove Tennessee Bourbon. Not familiar with this Distillery? That’s because there is none. The name comes from Sweeten’s Cove golf course, a golf lover’s “Field of Dreams” in South Pittsburg, Tennessee (between Chattanooga and Nashville). It had a tradition of a bottle of whiskey being left by the first hole to offer players a complimentary shot of whiskey.
Its architect and owner, Rob Collins, negotiated ownership stakes with what’s been called a “celebrity group", including Tom Nolan, Andy Roddick, Mark Rivers, Peyton Manning, Skip Bronson, and Drew Holcomb. As they addressed upgrades to the golf course itself (such as indoor plumbing), the group (along with a total of about 40 people), were inspired to launch a whiskey project inspired by the tradition of a complimentary shot of whiskey at the first hole.
They bought 100 barrels of 13-year-old Tennessee bourbon and brought it back home to Tennessee from a Kentucky rickhouse, and contacted Marianne from a referral. Once again, she was given full control over the project, resulting in 14,000 bottles of 5 batches and 4 single barrels, all cask strength. There are no batch numbers on the batch bottles (ABV/proof gives you a batch hint) and the single barrels are listed as aged 14 years with barrel number.
While some have eye-rolled it as a “celebrity whiskey”, she told me that she was given full control over the entire process from start to finish (and yes, spitting out samples since she was pregnant at the time) and was amused when the “celebrity investors” realized from the media received that she was a celebrity in her own right.
Leading the Blind
As she continues to carefully choose consulting projects, Marianne began working on a goal of “distilling IN the box” ….in this case, a freight liner box truck. To make her mobile laboratory dream come true, she created the Eaves Blind program, a bourbon membership subscription service specifically designed to train your palate.
There are two levels: Apprentice and Aficionado, and four seasonal kits that will be delivered throughout the year. They contain Marianne’s own single bourbon blend expressions and single barrel selections. And as a giveback to the community, there is a sponsorship option for a hospitality industry professional membership. (While membership is now closed for 2021, keep an eye out for 2022!)
It was a great conversation with Marianne and whisk(e)y network will keep up to date on her future projects (“road aging” perhaps?). She also mentioned mentoring those interested in taking the first steps towards a distilling career, and we can’t wait to see her next move!
Join me next month for our first dual interview featuring Lily Styles (VinSocial) and Marlene Holmes (Milam & Greene whiskey) with fellow writer, Mark Pruett!