Marianne Eaves, Kentucky’s first female master distiller, talks to American Whiskey Magazine about her newest project, Forbidden Bourbon
Written by Gabrielle Nicole Pharms
Even before being declared “a distinctive product of the United States” by Congress in 1964, bourbon had long been a fixture in American drinking culture. Bourbon is based on tradition – which hasn’t always been so welcoming to everyone. The laws and regulations behind “America’s native spirit” have lurked in murky territories, such as barring women from working in whiskey.
However, with time has come awareness, acceptance, inclusivity, and innovation. The bourbon world is evolving from “This is the way it’s always been done” to a spirit of progression beyond the bottle and behind the scenes. Among those leading the charge with forward-thinking concepts is Marianne Eaves, who recently debuted her newest project Forbidden Bourbon.
Though Forbidden just hit select shelves this summer, it’s a project that’s been in the making since 2016. When Eaves met her partners in the project – Daniel Rickenmann, Michael Fawcett, and Murray Baroody – the bourbon’s name was based on their narrative versus what it is now: Eaves’ very own story of overcoming odds.
“They’ve translated it more into the story of being a ‘forbidden’ master distiller – being Kentucky’s first female master distiller – and that it was actually against the law to be a woman in production in Kentucky until 1974, when the law was repealed,” Eaves explains. “I’ve just pushed against what everybody told me was impossible my entire career. So, when nothing is forbidden, the outcome can be perfection. I believe what I’ve created in this release is unique. Hopefully, people will really appreciate the profile and that it is something new and continuing to push the industry forward.”
Forbidden is Eaves’ magnum opus, a bold and brilliant move after nearly a decade of invaluable contributions to the whiskey world. From earning the title of master distiller at Castle & Key Distillery to operating as master blender for Sweetens Cove, it is Eaves’ technical chops and remarkable palate have led to this big moment. “When I first started at Castle & Key, the product that I produced there was very much a model of the bourbons that I had been producing for the past six years while I was at Brown-Forman. Those were the processes that I knew,” Eaves says. “As a part of this transition away from one production facility and one brand, I started to learn that there are infinite ways to make incredible bourbon.”
Unafraid of a challenge, Eaves experimented with a unique mash bill and a rare low-temperature fermentation process to create Forbidden’s first expression. “When I read a Seagram’s Distillery production manual written in 1910, they were talking about low-temperature fermentation – this has been completely lost to history,” Eaves says. “So, I started trying it out and found, lo and behold, the science still held true that if you start yeast in the fermentation tank at a lower temperature, they make different flavors than they do if you throw them in there at top temperature and make them get to work really quickly. It was eye-opening for me, and it reinforced my instincts; there is so much that has been either forgotten or untapped.”
Forbidden is a five-year-old bourbon comprising 75 per cent white corn, 12 per cent white winter wheat, and 13 per cent malted barley. The result? A flavorful, complex pour with notes of vanilla bean and hazelnut on the nose, and tasty hints of delicate honeysuckle and caramel, with an exceptional subtle spicy finish. The white corn and white wheat balance the nuttier notes from the high barley percentage.
The mash bill is inspired by Southern cuisine – the fluffy biscuits, creamy gravy, and overall richness such dishes convey on the palate. “I tested maybe 10 different varieties of white corn, and we tried Silver Queen white corn. That was Daniel’s request because he wanted to see if we could use the white corn grown in South Carolina. That’s a big part of the summer and the culture in South Carolina,” Eaves says. “When I think about Southern cooking, I tend to think about cream and butter, and I think that these grains and the particular ratios and the way that I mash it with the low fermentation and the way that I distil it at a little lower proof maintain that creamy quality and the buttery texture that you find in a lot of the rich, traditional Southern cooking.”
While the initial production, research, and development used to define Forbidden’s mash bill was done at Castle & Key, Eaves and her business partners decided to transfer production to Bardstown Bourbon Company. “We talked to a lot of different people that do contract distillation. We knew we wanted to keep it in Kentucky, but I also wanted to keep my process and grain sources the same,” says Eaves. “One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate most about Bardstown Bourbon is that when I’m there, they see me as their master distiller. They’ll change any variable in the process just to make sure that it is made to my standards.”
Forbidden is available in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and online at an SRP of $129. In addition to the first release, there are plans to release three single-barrel cask strength expressions.
Eaves’ wealth of experience and creativity continues to shine through projects such as Forbidden, yet she isn’t stingy in sharing the limelight. “It’s important for me that other women know that while there are challenges, there’s more space for us, and there’s more space opening every day,” says Eaves. “We can create more opportunities for the future. So, as hard as it seems right now, just know that the work that we’re doing and what was laid down by the women before us, we just keep changing the trajectory of the future.”
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