At this point in my whiskey journey, it’s safe to say I am jaded, cynical and accustomed enough to rarely get particularly excited when opening a box containing samples from a distillery. There aren’t many brands that are really making my eyes light up, just at the prospect of getting to taste them. Don’t get me wrong; I love what I do, but it’s inevitable that someone working in a field every day becomes at least somewhat inured to the excitement of it all. But for me, that all goes out the window when seeing the King of Kentucky label. And that’s coming from someone who rarely gets swept up in limited release hype.
In short, this brand is special, even in a landscape where hundreds of brands are being pushed as “special.” There’s a ton of great bourbon coming out of Brown-Forman in any given year, whether it’s under the Old Forester, Woodford Reserve or other brands, and I love many of those whiskeys. But King of Kentucky, I now think of as the distillery’s crown jewel. And tasting this latest 2022 batch only reinforces that opinion. This is some of the best bourbon I’ve tasted in a while. Do I like it quite as much as I adored the 14-year-old batch back in 2020? I’m not sure—perhaps I need a full bottle of this stuff to truly decide? …pelase?
All kidding aside, the few expressions of King of Kentucky I’ve been able to sample are testaments to what Brown-Forman bourbon can taste like when everything goes wonderfully right inside their heat-cycled warehouses. They’re also an advertisement for the masterful blending of Master Distiller Chris Morris, who assembled this year’s release—”hitting shelves” in August, as if you’d somehow find it on a shelf—from 43 single barrels distilled in 2006, making for a 15-year-old, cask-strength expression that weighs in at 65.3% ABV (130.6 proof), yielding about 3,500 bottles. It carries a hefty $250 MSRP, although this is ultimately laughable, given that previous batches have sold for 10 times that value on the secondary market. As ever, one can assume that most of these bottles will be snapped up by resellers, and that even the package stores will get into the gouging game by trying to sell them for $1,000 or more. One might well find that the easiest way of sampling something like King of Kentucky is befriending well-connected whiskey geeks, or hoping that a bar near you lands a bottle.
But wait … it gets rarer! Because yes, there’s actually not only one but two King of Kentucky releases for 2022, with a second, 18-year-old batch distilled in 2004. This batch will be sold only in Kentucky, bears “an embossed label with a gold-foiled stamp border and gold details,” and has an MSRP of $350. With only 250 bottles in existence, I don’t even want to speculate what the secondary value will end up being. Suffice to say, it will be utterly disgusting. Also, unsurprisingly, I don’t have a sample of that expression to taste today.
So with all that said, let’s get to it and taste what we might refer to as the “base release” of King of Kentucky for 2022, the 15-year-old, 130.6 proof expression.
On the nose, this bourbon presents a symphony of mature, alluring richness. Old oak and dark chocolate intertwine with mocha, graham cracker and honey toffee, supported by subtle earthiness and tobacco. Mild to moderate spice notes hint at rye and baking spice, especially allspice. The juicier fruit impressions I remember from the 2020 expression are less present here, but the chocolate is definitely quite assertive. Compared with the only other King of Kentucky in my recent memory, this one seems a bit more oaky and savory, herbal and rye-accented, albeit with plenty of suggestion of richness as well. The ethanol, meanwhile, is incredibly mild and integrated on the nose—smelling this, no one would ever, ever think it could possibly be 130 proof. The rough edges have been utterly smoothed away.
On the palate, this is clearly and immediately a home run. Rich, fairly decadent and sweet, it leads off with caramel and vanilla bean, but especially molasses, into chocolate and big, spice-forward oak. The aromatic oakiness comes forward as cinnamon, stem ginger and cardamom, while the fruit now steps forward with prominent dried fruit notes. As on the nose, ethanol is in wonderful harmony with the flavor profile, although here it doesn’t run or hide—it blooms in the chest with the requisite Kentucky hug. If there’s one whiskey descriptor I generally hate, it’s “smooth,” but this is one of those rare cases when I can’t argue against trotting it out—it’s a beautiful but accessible flavor profile, which I imagine the neophyte bourbon drinker would love, but the expert would simultaneously love to dissect at length. There’s something here to tantalize anyone who loves bourbon.
At the end of the day, one simply wishes that more drinkers would ultimately have a chance to experience this. King of Kentucky is every bit as special as the hype would have one believe—something I rarely say. Whereas I tend to believe that many, or even most, limited release bourbons struggle to justify what is meant to make them seem exceptional, King of Kentucky has no such difficulty. It’s just the most perfectly composed example of the Brown-Forman whiskey making process available today, and that is a wonderful thing.
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 65.3% (130.6 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $250 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.