Google “abandoned places near me” and you’ll find dozens of devoted websites and postings of eerie, desolate buildings. The popularity of this search term has spiked since 2013, and the internet is delivering: #ruinporn has carved out its own niche corner. We’re fascinated by it. Most of us (I, at least) scroll through the images a little bit mystified, then scroll on.
Most of us aren’t the team at Castle & Key.
When the founders of the distillery found the 150-year-old historic property, it was in a massively ruinous state. It had been featured on lists of abandoned places, destinations, even more niche lists of abandoned distilleries. Neither partner had a background in spirits or in construction. They were heartily advised not to take on the project. They bought it anyway.
We came on board in 2016, in the midst of restoration. As the site was re-erected, we helped to build the Castle & Key brand. Two years later, the Distillery opened its doors. The launch happened gradually, but powerfully. Castle & Key had already captured national attention and developed a devoted fanbase. Here’s what we took away from the experience.
In 2014, before purchasing the distillery, Will Arvin was a lawyer. Wes Murry was in finance. As the tale goes, Will woke up in the middle of the night ready for change. He googled “distilleries for sale” and found the Old Taylor Distillery. Built in 1887, the distillery was one of the most prolific of its time. Inspired by European castles, it was built to impress. Colonel Taylor himself was an influential figure, leading the Bottled-in-Bond Act to impose a standard product quality. The distillery is a piece of bourbon history. But, the property changed hands several times, ultimately sitting vacant for decades.
Industry experts and trusted mentors thought Will and Wes were crazy, and crazier to fully restore the derelict, history-filled structures on the property as they planned. But, they possessed a strand of determinism and idealism traceable to Colonel Taylor himself. The awe-inspiring history of the property and the conviction of the importance of staying faithful to its heritage became the driver of the story and the brand. As the foliage of the property was trimmed back to uncover stunning architecture, Castle & Key’s brand architecture was distilled to its purest. They were driven to do justice to this piece of bourbon history, pay respect to the legacy of Colonel Taylor, and continue its story.
The public was primed, curious, and expectant. There were frequent questions about when the distillery would open, when (un)official tours would be available. Requests for photoshoots, weddings, other events on the surreal property. And, of course, was there bourbon yet? They had organically captured people’s hearts. A great problem to have, but still: how do you hold onto that momentum in the face of inevitable setbacks?
We helped produce a video, telling the story and capturing the surreal, willful personality of the property. The video signaled progress and introduced Castle & Key’s cornerstone principles and vision. And as the grounds were restored, Castle & Key communicated regularly on social platforms about the progress on site and the distillation of the spirits. We delivered social media guidelines to inform voice and best practices per platform. The public was able to experience progress in real-time alongside Castle & Key, watching the property come back to life and its next chapter unfold.
Meanwhile, Castle & Key’s team was growing every day, scaling from a small core team to a major operation. And, still building two brands at once: Castle & Key the product and Castle & Key Distillery, the destination. With this growth and evolution, a robust brand identity and an airtight brand story was a necessary component for sustaining.
But, Castle & Key had more than a few key differentiators. They had several: their foundational dedication to heritage. Investing in restoration of the property in the face of doubt. Breaking boundaries with Marianne Eaves, the first female bourbon master distiller in Kentucky since Prohibition. Using locally-sourced ingredients. Hiring to bring innovative perspectives on board. Treating everyone on-premise as guests, not visitors. And, pushing the definition of bourbon destination. Balancing each component of the story and weaving it into a consistent, naturally flowing narrative was an ongoing challenge.
We provided language guidelines, including tone and style consistencies, as well as the Castle & Key narrative. Then, we built a digital style guide, our proprietary brand bible that houses their identity guidelines and files to provide them with one cohesive, functional resource. With these pieces, every team member is enveloped into Castle & Key’s definitive culture and are equipped to successfully execute the message.
As Castle & Key grew and evolved, the brand matured. Their vision deepened. They outgrew the label of local, if somewhat amateur, distillery. We helped realize this subtle, important shift through language. Their tagline grew up, evolving from: “Respect History. Challenge Tradition.” to, “The Courage of Our Convictions.” With some intentionality, Castle & Key was poised to become a disruptive, attention-demanding brand.
The core of this evolution is about ownership. The initial language we developed revolved around the dreams and ideals of the founders. This language is compelling, but can really only be owned by the original core team. Having courage and following your convictions can be shared by Castle & Key’s team members, fanbase, and the public.
Looking back, it really only feels like slow motion in retrospect. Launching the brand really happened in a series of sprints and waits. In April of 2017, Castle & Key released their first spirits, gin and vodka, celebrated with an on-site cocktail competition. Now, in September of 2018, the distillery is open to the public. The first release of bourbon is expected in 2021. Their vision for the future of Castle & Key extends far beyond the initial, awe-inspiring restoration. With a galvanizing purpose and strong brand foundations, the framework is in place to reach goals yet conceived.