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King of Kentucky Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2021 Release, Barrel 21) Review

King of Kentucky Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2021 Release, Barrel 21) Review
It was early 2019 when I was on a field trip with a friend of mine to hunt for bourbon in Kentucky.  We had just got a hot tip that a liquor store close to Fort Knox had some Weller 12 that they were putting out that day, so we quickly rushed over.   Sure enough, they did have the Weller 12, but they also had a small table with various allocated bottles like Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection and a lone bottle of King of Kentucky… for $350.  I left the store with that bottle of Weller 12 in my hands and laughed all the way home about whoever would come in and buy that bottle for that price.  Fast forward a year later and whoever ended up buying that bottle is probably laughing at me now.

2021 King of Kentucky

Everyone has their story about the bottle that got away from them and that one is mine.  But it still haunts me to this day not because of how much the secondary price has skyrocketed on it, but because of how much praise I’ve seen King of Kentucky get since then.  First, let’s start off with the name.  King of Kentucky is such an amazing name for a bourbon.  It’s powerful, it sounds like it’s royalty and it has the name of the state most commonly thought of when you hear the word bourbon.  The fact that this is 14 year old bourbon from Brown Forman makes it even more impressive.
Everything about King of Kentucky is fascinating to learn about.  Let’s start off with the mash bill.  It’s not the typical Old Forester mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malt.  Instead it’s the Early Times (RIP) mash bill of 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malt.  This mash bill seems more fitting because when King of Kentucky was bought by Brown Forman back in the 1940s, it was made as a blended whiskey.  Early Times was also changed to be a blended whiskey around 1982 and was known to use this mash bill.  Rest assured, the modern example of King of Kentucky is not a blended whiskey and ages its entire life in a new, charred oak barrel.
Speaking of how it ages, let’s talk about that for a moment because that’s where it gets more interesting.  Brown Forman is known for their heat cycled warehouses.  This process involves running steam heat through pipes that connect their warehouses from a central boiler.  This ensures that the temperature inside of them never dips below 65 to 70 degrees in the winter months.  Seeing as how the barrels are never truly “inert” (like most Kentucky bourbon would be during the winter), they are said to age faster.  This is why many Old Forester products are only aged for around 4-5 years, because the whiskey inside is said to exhibit aged traits that make them seem 50% older than they really are.

Warehouse O, what is it?

There’s just one problem with heat cycling like this… if Brown Forman wants to age the barrels longer, they begin to find that the increased evaporation rates tend to result in barrels with very low yields.  This is why Birthday Bourbon batches, which are typically aged between 10 and 12 years, fluctuate so much in their yields.  Some barrels from the final batch are empty when it comes time to dump them.  So what did Brown Forman do to prevent complete evaporation for the barrels that were selected to continue aging up to 14 years?  The answer lies in Warehouse O.

By time you read this article, Warehouse O is probably gone.  I’m going to detail the strange and fascinating history of it in an upcoming article I am writing on the history of Brown Forman, but here are the facts you need to know.  At the southern tip of the Brown Forman Distillery Campus (formerly called Early Times Distillery) there is/was a long, somewhat narrow metal-clad warehouse.  It has very few windows and was only a single story.  The ricks on the inside were only 6 barrels tall (much like Four Roses or MGP style aging facilities).  The most important part about Warehouse O was that it was not heat cycled.  So the whiskey inside would only age according to mother nature’s timetable.

What did they store in Warehouse O?  Everything, actually.  Bourbon that was destined for use in Old Forester products was sometimes aged in this warehouse.  But I happen to think that it was primarily used for the barrels of “whiskey” that went into Early Times batches.  This whiskey was supposedly aged only around 3 years in used cooperage to cut costs.  But another part of cutting costs is to not add any more costs than are absolutely necessary, such as aging them in heat cycled warehouses.  This whiskey, after all, was only meant for blending.

Someone at Brown Forman (possibly Chris Morris) made the decision around 2011 to move barrels of Early Times bourbon from the heat cycled warehouses to Warehouse O in order to slow down the high evaporation rates that would occur there.  This means that every bottle of King of Kentucky spent roughly half its life in the Warehouse that is indicated on the front label (this one is from Warehouse “I”) and half its life in Warehouse O.  Low yield barrels are still possible (and expected) by aging them in Warehouse O, but it definitely helps.
Now comes the fun part… tasting the results of a 14 year old Brown-Forman product.  The lower-rye content should result in a bourbon that will probably be less spicy than Old Forester products, but what other secrets does it hold?  Let’s find out.  I tasted this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose:  It’s a rare treat to get so much wood smoke on the nose with a bourbon, and this one has it in droves.  No, it’s not smoke like a peated Scotch, this is much richer and more balanced; like the smoke from a fine cigar or the faint smoke of an extinguished campfire.  I’m stunned at its complexity.  Loads of toffee, warm fruit compote and Grade-B maple syrup (which is superior to Grade-A) confirm the age.  Is there anything better than a Brown Forman product’s maple syrup notes?  I can’t think of any.  The caramel scents on this one is exquisite and sweetens up the massive oak notes found with every sip.  Not a single part of the nose is off-balance or off-putting in any way.
Palate: Oak, oak, oak.  Toasted, roasted, seasoned, you name it.  Every type of oak (except the young, green tasting type) is found on the tongue.  It’s simultaneously velvety but has a strong bite.  And chocolate notes?  Also everywhere. It’s the fine Swiss variety.  But coupled with the dark cherry flavors I find and it becomes more like a cherry cordial.  Robust vanilla, melted butter and that haunting smokey wood note follow from the nose.  This bottle could fight almost every release of GTS and probably win.
Finish:  The finish lasts forever in your mouth after the sip is done.  Of course, at this proof, you wouldn’t think it could do anything but.  For such a high proof, the heat is beautifully restrained, easily feeling 15 proof points lower than it clocks in at.  The ending is loaded with chocolate and cherry notes of all kinds and also has tremendous oak notes to boot.

Score: 10/10

King of Kentucky contains the stuff that legends are made of.  Easily standing heads and shoulders over anything else from the Brown Forman portfolio (and almost everything else made in Kentucky), this bourbon is flawless.  For those of you who have complained that Birthday Bourbon doesn’t have enough proof, or that Old Forester 150th Anniversary releases still tasted too young or that the Old Forester Single Barrels are too unbalanced, King of Kentucky addresses each of those issues with its age, proof and balance.
Ratings that score a perfect 10 are rare for me, but not totally unheard of.  King of Kentucky shares some rare air with the likes of the first Mister Sam release, 2015 William Larue Weller and various Willett bottlings from long ago.  The main thing these bottles all have in common was their high age statements coupled with being barrel proof.  They were all from barrels that were carefully tracked by the producer and identified early for their high ceiling.  Among certain groups of whiskey drinkers, I believe the word “Ambrosia” is used to describe a whiskey of such high caliber, and KoK fits that description nicely.

Final Thoughts

So how to wrap up a review like this after I feel like I can’t possibly build up the hype any more?  Simply put, do whatever it takes to try one of these releases.  We don’t know how long they’re going to be around now that Brown Forman seems to be undergoing a period of great change.  Selling off the Early Times brand, tearing down Warehouse O, Jackie Zykan leaving and beginning to restructure the company for a more dominant role in the contract distilling realm are all examples of a company in flux.  This may spell limited life left in the King of Kentucky program (especially since that mashbill isn’t made by BF anymore).  So if you have a chance to taste one of the best bourbons out there, do it.  I guarantee you won’t be let down.

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