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King of Kentucky Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2022 Release, Barrel 15) Review

King of Kentucky Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2022 Release, Barrel 15) Review

I was thinking of starting out this review with a zippy one-liner like “King of Kentucky needs no introduction,” but then it occurred to me that there are many enthusiasts who may be unfamiliar with the brand. If you’re one of those people, here’s why you may not have heard of this brand before. For starters, it’s only distributed in a few states – in 2022 they were Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio. The next hurdle is that there are a limited number of barrels selected each year (2022 only had 43 barrels selected to become King of Kentucky). And finally, the bottle count is incredibly low. Only 3,500 bottles were produced in 2022 – an average of about 81 bottles per barrel. This makes King of Kentucky one of the lowest-volume allocated bourbons to come out each year.

King of Kentucky, explained

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. King of Kentucky is derived from the old “Early Times” mash bill that Brown-Forman used to make before they sold it to Sazerac in 2020. That doesn’t mean that BF stopped producing the mash bill, they just don’t own the Early Times brand anymore. Instead, the mash bill has found its way into Cooper’s Craft bottles (in extremely small amounts) as well as Old Forester 1924. But its primary use will continue to be for the King of Kentucky brand. This was made clear after former Master Distiller Chris Morris began to refer to it as the “King of Kentucky Mash Bill” during interviews.

King of Kentucky was originally a middling product that went through a series of transitions and names (at one point it was just referred to as “King”). For most of its life it was a blended whiskey. But these days, King of Kentucky is a name that demands the utmost in respect. It’s one of the oldest age-stated products that Brown-Forman produces, even surpassing Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. It’s always bottled from a single barrel and bottled at barrel strength.

How does King of Kentucky get so old?

Because Brown-Forman heat-cycles almost all of their warehouses, some measures are usually taken to ensure that the barrels aren’t bone-dry after spending 14+ years tucked away. Jackie Zykan – former Master Taster for Brown-Forman – once explained in an interview that the original King of Kentucky releases from 2018 to 2020 used barrels that aged in Warehouse K (a heat-cycled warehouse) for the first seven years of their life. Then they were moved into Warehouse O (a non heat-cycled warehouse) to finish maturing for the next 7 years. This was done on purpose to control the runaway evaporation that sometimes occurs in an artificially heated environment.

But Warehouse O was effectively torn down in 2020 which meant that future releases wouldn’t have that luxury. However, I found out that Warehouses G and H had their heat turned off as late as 2018. I speculated that extra-aged releases like future barrels of King of Kentucky or even Birthday Bourbon could be moved into those two warehouses to achieve the same results.

What’s different about the 2022 King of Kentucky release?

For 2022, all of the barrels that were selected for the KoK program came from Warehouse H (a non heat-cycled warehouse). We know that they’ve seen at least 4 years without being artificially heated and maybe more. This may have been a factor in why this warehouse was selected for 2022 (they change every year). Here’s the breakdown of where the King of Kentucky barrels came from each year:

2018 – Warehouse K

2019 – Warehouse K

2020 – Warehouse K

2021 – Warehouse I

2022 – Warehouse H

2023 – Warehouse G

For the first time in the program, there was going to be two separate releases of King of Kentucky. The first release was going to be 15-years-old and see distribution in Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois. This would be followed by a special 18-year-old release would be released only in Kentucky. All were chosen by Chris Morris.

The bottle I’m reviewing today comes from Barrel #15 and is one of the 15-year-old examples (realistically, around 15 1/2-years-old). The proof comes in at 130.4 which is about average for that year’s barrels. So how does it taste? Let’s find out. I sampled it neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose is overloaded with the scents of cherries, seasoned oak and chocolate. Sweetness abounds with toffee, butterscotch and brownies. Each scent is so powerful and direct, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. This is what perfection smells like.

Palate: The explosion of flavors is so powerful, you really can’t miss anything that the King shows you. Flavors like cherry cola come across first on my tongue. It later morphs into flat Dr. Pepper. Toffee isn’t far behind. The baking spices are well-rounded, never getting too hot. I find cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Toffee provides sweetness while melted chocolate infuses with dark red fruits. The oak packs a bold punch, leaning just a little bit towards being dry. Everything I taste is incredible.

Finish: Sweet and oaky, the finish lasts for days. The oak gets more intense and a little drier while leather also comes into the picture. Chocolate and slightly overdone caramel sauce provide sweetness. Those dark red fruits like cherries and raspberry jam keep the party going.

Score: 9.5/10

2022’s King of Kentucky is almost perfect in almost every way. If there were anything I’d adjust on this bottle, it would be to turn down the drying oak a couple of clicks while also giving the oak a little more of that “dusty” flavor that I could find in the King of Kentucky’s that were bottled from 2018 to 2020. Those seemed like they had a bit more age to them, despite being 1 year younger.

Otherwise, I’m just splitting hairs and trying to find fault in this incredible bourbon. There really is no need for a score on this one, but I have to keep up with tradition. The bottom line is that King of Kentucky is always a sure thing and drinking this barrel – or any barrel for that matter – is always the right move. The question then becomes just how much you’re willing to pay to get a taste.

Final Thoughts

There are some King of Kentucky aficionados out there who I’ve talked to who claim that the 2022 and 2023 versions are losing their luster compared to earlier releases. They point out the increase in barrels and bottles and correlate that to a watering-down of the brand. I see their point, but less than 4,000 bottles per release is still a drop in the bucket when we’re talking bourbon produced in Kentucky each year. This is still the cream of the crop for allocated releases and I don’t think I’d find anyone who would dispute this is currently Brown-Forman’s best product they currently sell.

So what would you do to get your own bottle? That’s a questions that only your wallet could answer. As for me, I wish I had it on tap at my house, but instead I’ll just have to settle for a taste when i can get one. No matter what distillery your taste buds align with, King of Kentucky is one of the best bourbons on the market now; and I hope you can get a taste.

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