Meet Marianne Eaves, the First Female Master Distiller Since Prohibition

Marianne Eaves

Photo courtesy of Marianne Eaves

For years, the alcohol industry has primarily been run by men, much like the act of imbibing itself has primarily been ascribed to men. But the times they are a-changing, and more and more women are making room for themselves at the bar (or behind it) and changing the face of drinking as we know it. That's why we're profiling the spirited women who are taking the industry by storm, whether by heading up a well-known brand, crafting their own small batch brews, or mixing up the most inventive cocktails we've ever sipped.

Meet Marianne Eaves

When you think of bourbon, images of old men sitting in a dusty library filled with cigar smoke may come to mind. For others, thinking of the drink may conjure up horse racing on the first Saturday in May. Or Don Draper pouring a glass neat to celebrate a new advertising win. Whatever comes to your mind though, you probably don’t picture a soft-spoken woman with a slight Kentucky accent who grew up in a dry county. But that's about to change thanks to Marianne Eaves. She’s been an integral part of the industry for the past decade and a big reason why a Manhattan cocktail has been sounding good to you lately. 

The 32-year-old chemical engineer is Kentucky’s first female master distiller since Prohibition. Her meteoric rise in, let’s face it, a predominantly male industry has helped change the face and legacy of one of America’s oldest spirits. She began her career as an intern for the Brown-Forman portfolio of brands which includes Jack Daniels and Old Forester. In just five years, she became a master taster at Woodford Reserve Distillery and served as the protégé to master distiller Chris Morris.

“I was so young, and I knew to be noticed I had to work really hard,” Eaves said. “That was something my dad instilled in me. As much as we say you should strive for balance, absolutely, but there’s a time in your career where you’re building up your network and your reputation where it’s important to kind of stay on the grind.”

That work ethic got her noticed outside of her own workplace. She remembers getting a direct message on LinkedIn from a man named Wes Murray who wanted her to take a tour of a distillery he had bought just down the road from her at Woodford Reserve. She admits she blew him off until her curiosity got the best of her a couple of months later. 

As much as we say you should strive for balance, absolutely, but there’s a time in your career where you’re building up your network and your reputation where it’s important to kind of stay on the grind.

Becoming a Master Distiller

The property was not what she expected. Eaves remembers thinking it looked like a “post-apocalyptic war zone.”

“There were holes in the roof, every window was broken, asbestos, lead paint, and snakes,” Eaves said. “It was completely overgrown, but I could tell that Wes really wasn’t gonna give up. He had a passion for getting into this industry and getting it right, which was so important to me, especially after having worked at Brown-Forman. Those values of everything that goes into a bottle with your name on it is actually something you produced. Which sounds like it should be common or standard in this industry and it’s really not.”

At 28, she signed on to help Wes and his business partner, Will Arvin, restore and develop the gin, bourbon, and rye whiskey labels at the historic Old Taylor Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, and in doing so, became the first female master distiller the area had seen in decades. The distillery, which is now known as Castle and Key Distillery, was in complete disarray when she said yes to the opportunity. Some in the industry questioned the move and thought the property was too far gone to restore. 

“One of the things that I’m most grateful for now is not knowing everything,” Eaves said. “I didn’t know it was impossible. I didn’t know that our three million dollar budget was going to be ten times or more by the time we got to the point that we were operating. Luckily the guys didn’t know that either. I knew that I was very capable of learning, so even if I don’t have all of the answers today, we’re gonna get this done.” 

Starting Castle & Key

There were several barriers to getting the job done, including limited electricity, freezing cold temperatures and no heat or running water. It took her six months to get a lab set up and develop relationships with suppliers before she was able to start running trials or testing. Thankfully, her chemical engineering background and the education she received at Brown-Forman helped her when she began to create her own label of gin, bourbon, and rye whiskey. It came down to “passion and patience” and selecting the best suppliers. 

One of the things that I’m most grateful for now is not knowing everything... I knew that I was very capable of learning, so even if I don’t have all of the answers today, we’re gonna get this done.

“There are these very strict regulations that define bourbon, but that doesn’t mean that we’re just like white flag, we’re done,” Eaves said. “There are little details in the process that can be manipulated that can make a huge impact on what bourbon can be.” 

And the regulations are truly very strict. By law, bourbon must be made in the United States. It must be aged in a new, charred oak barrel for at least two years to be considered straight bourbon. The mash must be at least 51% corn and the bourbon cannot enter the barrel for aging at higher than 125 proof or the bottle at lower than 80 proof. Finally, no additives, only water may be added to lower the proof when necessary. Those kind of rules make it seem difficult to make a bourbon that separates itself from the pack, but Eaves assures that’s not the case.

“There’s all of these little details that engineers pay attention to and it’s a lot of boring stuff like times and temperatures that make a huge impact on the flavor, sometimes just as much as the grain recipe or the yeast strain that you select,” Eaves explains. 

Mixing the timeless tradition of bourbon with the creativity and critical thinking of her scientific background was her favorite part of the job. Eaves admits she felt “a bit of a calling” to bring this distillery back to life. 

“It was this brave choice of taking that title 'cause I was doing the job and making that statement for women,” Eaves said. “I’m not just gonna wait for somebody else to hand it to me. I know what I’m capable of and the tremendous amount of work I’m going to be doing bringing Castle and Key back to life.”

What Makes a Good Bourbon?

Marianne Eaves
Photo courtesy of Marianne Eaves

In Marianne’s experience, for a bourbon to be good, it comes down to a balance of fruit, spice, sweet, savory, and woody notes. She’s been in the industry long enough to see bourbon evolve from “bottom shelf what your grandpa drank” into a sophisticated choice for those looking to indulge. She credits this to the growing popularity of mixologists and bartenders as well as the success of Mad Men in 2007 that got people interested in classic cocktails (and the traditional spirits they require) again.

It was this brave choice of taking that title cause I was doing the job and making that statement for women. I’m not just gonna wait for somebody else to hand it to me. I know what I’m capable of.

“One of the most interesting things about this movement in the industry is the amazing things that bartenders are doing to emphasize and enhance the flavors of bourbon and what’s in the bottle versus just trying to cover it up with sour mix,” Eaves said. 

Even if you don’t think you’re a bourbon drinker, Eaves says there’s hope for you yet. She wasn’t a huge fan of whiskey when she started as an intern at Brown-Forman, but thanks to advice from a colleague at fellow Brown-Forman brand Casa Herradura, she learned to appreciate the drink in Mexico of all places. When she asked her colleague how he suggested people drink tequila straight, he had two pieces of advice. First, to drink it how you like it whether that’s in a margarita or a tequila sunrise, to get yourself accustomed to the flavor of the spirit. The second rule was simple: drink the good stuff.

“I didn’t care for whiskey much because I was drinking crap whiskey,” Eaves said. “When you find one you really love, you really start to appreciate those flavors in other whiskeys.”

A Woman in a Man's World

Being one of the few women who have ever held the title of master bourbon distiller doesn’t come without some obstacles, and as Eaves says, “thick skin and patience.” Luckily she found a mentor quickly in Nancy Warfield, who led the intern program at Brown-Forman and encouraged Eaves to network, be a part of employee resource groups, and take on projects that many people assumed were just for the men. 

“A lot of people felt that lab work was more of a female’s job and being in the plants, distilleries and cooperages was more of a male intern’s job,” Eaves explained. “And I was just like I want to do it all. I’m going to keep raising my hand to do everything." 

That willingness to learn and take advantage of every opportunity helped her rise the ranks quickly. But even when she worked as a master taster at Woodford Reserve while also doubling as a Process Research and Development Engineer at Brown-Forman, consumers were doubtful when she lead a tasting.

“People would see me in a room and assume I was in sales,” Eaves explained. “And I was like no, I actually make this stuff.”

Though she often worked alongside master distiller Chris Morris as he taught Bourbon University, a program for passionate Woodford Reserve fans to get a behind-the-scenes peek at their favorite brand, she once had to teach the course herself as Morris was called out of the country on business. Many would-be attendees decided not to come when they learned she would be teaching instead. Eaves admits those who did attend “weren’t expecting very much.”

People would see me in a room and assume I was in sales, and I was like no, I actually make this stuff.

"A lot of people want to judge you by the way you look, and once I was able to start talking to them and they knew, ‘Oh she actually knows what she’s talking about too,’ I got us off on the right foot pretty quickly.” Eaves said. “Maybe if I had been a male master taster, they wouldn’t have been so concerned about the $250 or whatever they paid for their course admission.”

And just as the icing on the cake, Eaves said the reviews from her course were the best reviews they’d ever gotten. 

Once she became a master distiller at Castle and Key, Eaves said the number of women who reached out to her to tell her about their own journeys (or their daughter’s journeys) in the bourbon industry has been very heartening.

“It’s been amazing to have people reaching out, and I’m really excited to think I’ve been a little bit of an inspiration for women that maybe didn’t even know that it was possible,” Eaves said.

Life as a Master Distiller

Marianne Eaves
 Photo courtesy of Marianne Eaves

Eaves made the decision earlier this year to leave Castle and Key distillery to focus on other goals like founding her own consulting company. Though Eaves is the first to say that she will someday have her own distillery and label again, she’s focused on helping distilleries (bourbon or otherwise) perfect their craft. It’s the perfect time to start the business as Eaves admits she’s a bit of a nomad now; her boyfriend runs a traveling circus, so they’ve been trekking across the country together, giving her the chance to visit distilleries all over the nation.

“It’s really fun to get the chance to talk to people who are running things a certain way,” Eaves said.”They’ve been told by somebody else that this is the only way to do things, and then I come in there like ‘Well, have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?’ and then it’s just like mind explosion.”

Though she now consults with gin makers and brandy connoisseurs, bourbon is always at the back of her mind. 

“The other thing I want to do while I have some time is to really learn about different spirits,” Eaves said. “So you know, get around the world a little bit, learn about the flavor development and all of these other unique spirits and how we can bring that back to bourbon.”

Making Room at the Table (or Barrel)

Through her consulting business, Eaves has also had the opportunity to meet pioneering women in distilleries across the country. She’d love to develop a female mentor program through this network she’s created.

“If I can find opportunities and start to place women and really build up the incredible, talented, thoughtful base of women distillers, I would freaking love that,” Eaves said.

She credits a lot of her success as a professional woman to taking chances and always being open to learning.

“Once an opportunity comes, don’t be scared to put yourself out there,” Eaves said. “It might feel like a little bit of a risk if you don’t know 80% of what you’re getting ready to walk into, but that’s been so important for me moving from one step to the next.”

If I can find opportunities and start to place women and really build up the incredible, talented, thoughtful base of women distillers, I would freaking love that.

Working hard for her goals has also been a central theme in her life, as is recognizing that there’s always going to be an ebb and flow in work and to make space and time for the things that are important to you.

“That’s an important question that we should all ask ourselves,” Eaves said. “What are my goals? What do I really want to achieve? Because you can easily find yourself working yourself to the ground, for what? For someone else or something else or sometimes you don’t even know why.”

Though the bourbon industry has been growing for over a decade, Eaves thinks it will continue to grow with consumers placing a premium on quality spirits. 

“It’s a little bit crazy to think I’ve been in the spirits industry already for a decade,” Eaves said. “What could happen in the next 10 years?”

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