Q&A with Whiskey & Bourbon Category Winner Jon Newton of Castle & Key Distillery

Aug 10, 2021
Washington, D.C.

Castle & Key Distillery was named Whiskey & Bourbon Category Winner of WSWA’s 2021 Brand Battle. Located in Kentucky, Castle & Key has a rich history and is reimagining how Kentucky spirits are received by the world.


Castle & Key will represent the Whiskey & Bourbon category and compete for the Brand Battle Championship.


To learn more about the history of the distillery and its plans for the future, Michael Bilello, WSWA’s Senior Vice President of communications and marketing, as well as WSWA Access craft program manager, talked with Jon Newton, Director of Sales for Castle & Key.


MICHAEL BILELLO: During the competition you shared your brand’s narrative and story. It’s fascinating. Can you take us back to when Castle & Key was an idea? How did this company get started?


JON NEWTON: In 1887 Colonel Taylor founded this distillery to be one of the first examples of a destination distillery – a showplace distillery – here in the US. He realized the power that comes with having a place for people to come and visit and to be able to experience your spirits.


In the 1970’s the site was abandoned and fell into disrepair. I would say the second iteration, the modern-day iteration, of Castle & Key really started in 2013 with our founding partner, Will Arvin, was having a day out at Keeneland racetrack, (definitely enjoying some fine Kentucky Bourbon). At 2:00 am that night, he's on Google searching for distilleries for sale when he wondered across a random listing for this defunct, old distillery right outside of Frankfort, KY. I am sure you can relate to the experience of thinking you have had great idea while late-night drinking with friends, but then waking up the next morning and realize they’re terrible ideas. Well Will really leaned into his “terrible idea” and bought the distillery with his business partner, West Murray, about a year later.


As they started the process of peeling back the layers to find out exactly what they had purchased. The scope and scale of the project grew over time. It was a process of discovery. The site told us what it wanted to become, and we did our best to capture the original magic that started here with Colonel Taylor. Especially for a new brand, a story of history and lineage, and this idea of going out to pursue your dreams – do things people say can't be done is powerful. That element is a very important part of our internal brand narrative. Those are also the elements that we really wanted to be able to capture in the product, in the packaging, as an outward message to consumers.


MB: That’s a great story! As an emerging brand, can you speak to the scalability of your products? Does this distillery provide room for growth down the line, or will Castle & Key be a small batch producer?


JN: When Will first bought this site, it was going to be a single pot still making a couple barrels a day, but as they really started to get into the guts of it, and also partnering with some of the best in the industry, they started to discover that a lot of this original equipment that was left behind, was actually in really good shape. We have actually reclaimed and are reusing the original grain silos, scale hoppers, and fermentation tanks. We were given this gift from the “Bourbon gods” that helped us scale from one to two barrels a day, to 50 to 100+ barrels a day and we definitely have the opportunity to scale more in the future.


We realize scalability is a challenge that many young brands have out there. When it comes to being able to scale and then how product shifts while they're doing that, well, we are very fortunate in the fact that we made that early on decision to be able to do things ourselves from scratch, from the start. It’s setting us to be a viable national, as well as international, brand in the future.


MB: Tell us about your products. Are you looking to expand your portfolio (i.e. include ready-to-drinks (RTDs)) or will you stick with spirits?


JN: Right now, we're going to keep focusing on our spirits. Our distillery and sales team have done an amazing job of creating great product and getting the Castle & Key name out there. They have been able to get our clear spirits out there too.


Our clear spirits start with our whiskey mash bills, are distilled into vodka, and then we also infuse product with local botanicals to make our gin. Not only have our clear spirits been a viable revenue stream for us, but it's been a way for us to pave the road for all this whiskey that we have aging. We're creating the runway right now for us to quickly be able to scale into a hundred thousand case brand because of the name and notoriety of Castle & Key will be there in the market even before the first drop of the brown spirits actually start to sell.


Up to this point, and going forward, we want to pursue this idea of thoughtful growth.


MB: You talk about growth of the company. How does this factor in with your relationship with industry partners – especially distributors? What do you look for in partners?


JN: We want to scale in a way that we're really getting to know our industry partners and that we’re being collaborative when working with our distributors. Our distributors are going to know their markets much better than we are. We want to take a more targeted approach, to find what resonates with bartenders, the distributor salesforce, and retailers, and then come up with a custom plan that's really going to make the brand successful…Our story alone will help get initial placement on the shelf, but we want to make sure that we're supporting our industry partners.


When we look for partners, especially distributors, we want storytellers. We want to work with people that get excited about the Castle & Key story as we do.


I get to wake up every morning and go work in a castle. How cool is that? Not many people get to say that. So, coming from the distribution side myself, I know what a grind it can be when you have to push something you just don't feel excited or passionate about. One of my hopes and goals is to be able to provide a tool in the toolbox for our distributor partners that they are excited to go out and use. I want to provide a portfolio that they are going to be passionate about and will be able to enjoy the process of telling the story. In turn, key retailers and bartenders are going to get excited and want to go tell that story to consumers.


At the end of the day, when it comes to spirits and a brand, the quality of product and the story is what matters. It’s how you build long lasting connections.


We’re looking for distributor partners that are not just pushing boxes, but that are really looking to build a brand and to get the Castle & Key narrative out there.


MB: What made you and your team want to apply for Brand Battle this year?


JN: Being a veteran of the industry, coming from the distribution side, I’m very familiar with WSWA and all its contributions to the industry. Like many brands during COVID, we were looking for ways to increase our digital footprint – not just for s consumers, but also on the business-to-business side. Brand Battle came across my desk and it seemed like a great opportunity. We feel very passionate about the brand that we're building, so any opportunity to get in front of more like-minded industry folks, is an opportunity we wanted to take advantage of.