Former Old Taylor Distillery to Name Woman Its Bourbon Master Distiller

It looks like I’ll need to revise Whiskey Women, where I state Kentucky does not have a female master distiller. According to sources close to the situation, Marianne Barnes will become the master distiller at the new distillery once known as Old Taylor.

Barnes, 28, was formerly the master taster at Brown-Forman and assisted with blending Old Forester.

Brown-Forman has confirmed her departure.

Marianne Barnes will become the new master distiller / head distiller for the former Old Taylor Distillery.
Marianne Barnes will become the new master distiller / head distiller for the former Old Taylor Distillery.

She was the lead blender for the special release Old Forester Whiskey Row 1870 Original Batch. A rising star in the distilling business, Barnes, a chemical engineer from the University of Louisville, said she was considering two internships—one for a renewable energy company and the other for Brown-Forman. She told me in a Whisky Advocate interview last year: “I was thinking about all the different things I can make with corn and thought: ‘Why make fuel when you can make bourbon?’”

During the Whiskey Row 1870 launch, Woodford Reserve and Old Forester master distiller Chris Morris told reporters: “This is the first bourbon blended by a woman in the modern era.”

Although several female craft bourbon distillers would dispute that claim, Morris’ well-intended point was likely Kentucky-specific and illustrated his confidence in Barnes. She was listed in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Profile and featured in CNBC’s Dream Job segment. Barnes became a media darling, but her engineering mind is even more impressive.

She joins Maker’s Mark’s Victoria MacRae-Samuels, VP of Operations, and Michter’s Pamela Heilmann, VP of production, as the highest-ranking ladies in bourbon production. But Barnes, whose title has not been confirmed, will likely become Kentucky’s first female master / head distiller since Prohibition.

Her new distillery home is the former Old Taylor facility in Woodford County—known for its castle structure—that will be renamed and is currently under renovation. The current Whisky Advocate issue contains details on the multi-million renovation.

As for its new distiller, I’ve spent a great deal of time with Barnes, and she’s the most-impressive young production mind I’ve ever met. I’m eager to see what she will accomplish in her new role. And of course, when I talk about Whiskey Women, I can say Kentucky finally has a true female master distiller.

It’s about time.



Fred Minnick is the author of Whiskey Women.

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8 Replies to “Former Old Taylor Distillery to Name Woman Its Bourbon Master Distiller”

  1. If you can do it, it isn’t bragging. Way to go! What a combination-intellect, beauty, experience all combined for a productive future in the whiskey business.

  2. Everything I have heard about Ms. Barnes has been more than positive. With her educational background, brief experience on a number of levels with B-F, and, if I may say this with no intention of sounding sexist, her good looks, she has great potential as both a technical distiller and ambassador for any brand that might be lucky enough to have her.

    My issue with this appointment goes no farther than the immediate application of the term “master distiller” to one who, in perspective, is a relative rookie in the industry. There is a historical significance to the term that, as smaller concerns proliferate, is being threatened by the ease at which the title is being bestowed.

    As a recent example, Eddie Russell was just recently named master distiller at Wild Turkey after 34 years working with his dad, Jimmy. Though I’m sure Eddie would have qualified years if not decades ago, the company showed great respect for the title by waiting to apply it until it mattered to all involved.

    The title of master brewer, or “brewmaster,” has already been wrecked by the craft brewing industry in their rush to significant legitimacy. It used to require an education in the discipline and an appropriate apprenticeship under a recognized brewmaster (at one time determined to be six years) before the title could be applied. Gone, forever. I would prefer that “master distiller” not go down the same path.

    Again, this is not about Ms. Barnes. She has demonstrated the potential for success or this opportunity would have never been presented to her. I wish her the best and look forward to meeting her myself someday, hopefully at that incredible distillery on Glenn’s Creek, once she has truly earned the title.

      1. I did not, Fred, and I’m not sure how I missed it, having been posted so recently. I’m glad you’ve already addressed the issue, and the responses provide additional valued perspective. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in this subject to read that post.

        I didn’t realize the genie was already so far out of the bottle as to be impossible to stuff it back in. Too bad.

        As one of the commenters mentions,there would need to be a certification program to legitimize the title in the modern era, and there appears to be no agency interested in leading the charge.

        The next to last line of your post was what prompted me to make my initial comment: “…Kentucky finally has a true female master distiller.” I would argue that Kentucky, in this case finally has, more accurately, a female master distiller.

        Thanks as always for your efforts on the industry’s behalf.

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