The heavy hitters are coming out to play today—we’ve got a first sample of Brown-Forman’s third King of Kentucky release, and we’ll say it right now: This one is an absolute flavor monster.
We didn’t have an opportunity to taste the first two batches of this particular bourbon, released in 2018 and 2019 after the historic brand was revived by Brown-Forman as a limited, well-aged, unfiltered, very pricey, barrel-proof release. Looking back at the reviews from that era from whiskey writers, it certainly seems like King of Kentucky wasn’t necessarily a big hit right off the bat, with some writers understandably expecting a whole lot from a whiskey that now bears a rather ridiculous $250 MSRP. The first 2018 batch in particular was described by many as extremely hot and dominated by ethanol, but we can only speak to this new 2020 batch—and this one is a winner, folks. We’re not going to attempt to make any argument in favor of its “value,” as that concept really can’t be said to exist with price tags this high, but the liquid in this bottle is both delicious and memorable.
The 2020 batch of King of Kentucky is, like the two previous, a single barrel, cask strength bourbon, this time with an age statement of 14 years, distilled at the Brown-Forman/Early Times distillery in Louisville. My particular sample weighs in at 130.6 proof (65.3% ABV), and hails from warehouse K, floor 8, rick 46. That’s a lot of detail, but that’s probably what you want when you’re spending $250. It’s made from the standard Early Times mash bill of 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malted barley. This batch is a bit smaller in size than the previous one, with around 1,900 total bottles, which will be sold predominantly in Kentucky, with a few in select Illinois and Ohio markets.
Overall, the King of Kentucky line is meant to highlight “the impact that long-term heat cycled maturation has on barrel yield and flavor presentation,” with Brown-Forman saying in the press release that “some barrels yield as little as one case of King but are not over wooded or astringent—in fact, they are incredibly complex and flavorful. This is another stellar release of rich, dark Kentucky bourbon flavor at its best.”
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting and see how this King of Kentucky (2020) stacks up.
On the nose, this one leaps out of my tasting glass with rich, fruity notes first and foremost. It’s very dark fruity, with cherry and cocoa notes that combine to evoke cherry cordial candies, along with graham cracker, fudge and dulce de leche, segueing into antique oak and leather. This smells quite sweet, and although the ethanol is certainly present, I’m surprised how centered on fruit and sweetness this nose is for 130 proof. Frankly, this is an awesome nose—one of the best bourbon noses I’ve smelled in recent memory, and something I want to just keep inhaling all day. It is positively mouthwatering.
On the palate, this King of Kentucky doesn’t disappoint, although I’m not sure anything can match the heavenly nose on this sample. This is very sweet on the front of the palate, with a big initial rush of brown sugar, into maple, into dulce de leche, with plenty more of that juicy cherry and cola-like spice. I get the fudge again, and certainly no shortage of vanilla, but where the front of the palate is very sweet, the heat comes roaring back on the back end, into a very long, spicy finish in which the rye and mint notes play a bigger role. The star of the show, though, are those stunning sweet flavors of dark fruit and caramelized sugars on the front end. Oak, believe it or not, doesn’t really play a huge role in this flavor profile as far as my taste buds are concerned—it’s there, and it plays into a finish that is drier than the initial front of the palate, but it’s not really what I find myself considering about this flavor profile afterward. The alcohol heat, meanwhile, eventually settles into the chest where it continues to smolder for ages.
It’s pretty delicious stuff, I will fully admit. With only 1,900 bottles out there, though, and secondary prices that are above $1,000 on the previous batches—DO NOT pay this, we’re begging you—it’s the kind of thing you’ll be lucky to ever see in person. Even as the $250 MSRP, this is asking a lot, especially when Brown-Forman has a new Old Forester Single Barrel at cask strength for $80-90. That may be a different mash bill, and lacking the impressive age statement, but that Old Forester is going to be the best way for many drinkers to approximate King of Kentucky for themselves.
If you do happen to come across this 2020 release in a bar, though, and the price is right, don’t hesitate. Lovers of sweet, fruity, barrel-proof bourbons will want to take notice.
City: Louisville, KY
ABV: 65.3% (130.6 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $250 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.