Skip to Content

King of Kentucky Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2023 Release, Barrel 9) Review

King of Kentucky Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2023 Release, Barrel 9) Review

I often get asked what my favorite distillery in Kentucky is. That’s an impossible question because each distillery does their own thing so well. Then they show off that “thing” by giving us an annual special release of some sort. Those special releases serve as a reminder to their fans “this is why you love us.”

Brown-Forman is one of those distilleries that I’m talking about. They’re a powerhouse among the industry but they really only had one annual release that they could show off: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.

While nobody can argue that its iconic bottle shape was eye-catching, most enthusiasts feel the bourbon inside is a mixed bag. Sure, the age statement isn’t impressive (ranging between 8 and 13 years old) when compared to other distilleries, but they’ll claim their heat-cycled warehouses make it taste much older. Plus, Birthday Bourbon’s proof is typically quite low – usually between 89 and 105 proof. The enthusiast community was clamoring for more.

Then, in 2018, Brown-Forman showed us they were listening.

The Rise of King of Kentucky

When Brown-Forman decides to do something big, they don’t hold back. I don’t think anyone believes that a product developer just woke up in 2018 and decided to bottle a bourbon like King of Kentucky. No, it was a calculated move and one that Jackie Zykan told audiences they planned years in advance. The tasting team identified certain 7-year-old barrels from heat cycled warehouses and moved them into Warehouse O (the unheated, single story warehouse on the south end of the campus) to age for another 7 years. This allowed less liquid to evaporate over the same time period which means the barrels won’t lose any more liquid than absolutely necessary.

The bourbon that was chosen for King of Kentucky wasn’t Old Forester, it was Early Times. One of the biggest differences between the two is that the Early Times mash bill uses less rye and a different yeast. Most enthusiasts describe the profile as sweeter with more cherry notes compared to Old Forester. As the years went on, the mash bill would remain the same but the warehouses that Brown-Forman plucked the barrels from changed.

The 2023 release of King of Kentucky

I already mentioned that the first release of King of Kentucky was aged for 14 years and came from Warehouse K. The next two years of King of Kentucky utilized the same warehouse (albeit from different floors). But in 2021, Brown-Forman changed it up and pulled barrels from Warehouse I. In 2022 they pulled barrels from Warehouse H.

2023 saw the warehouse change yet again to Warehouse G. As I explained in my article on Brown-Forman warehouses, Warehouses G and H had their steam heat turned off for a number of years unbeknownst to the public. The reason was that the two warehouses (joined together by a common wall) were going to prove to Brown-Forman just how differently the barrels aged without heat-cycling. The results would determine just how much heat cycling impacted the whiskey’s profile.

A key reason why I think that Warehouses G and H have been chosen recently is because Warehouse O was officially emptied out (and most of it was torn down) in 2021. This meant that Brown-Forman only had heat-cycled warehouses to age their whiskey in. But if they turned off the heat to just a couple warehouses, they would effectively mimic Warehouse O. It is my speculation that Brown Forman will either cycle the warehouses that they turn the heat off going forward or just designate some to be permanently heated and cooled by Mother Nature. Time will tell.

As far as the 2023 release went, Brown-Forman has chosen significantly more barrels to bottle up than in the past. And while total bottle numbers are sometimes unknown, the 2023 King of Kentucky release claims to only be made up of 3,500 bottles. To put it in context, that’s about 1/4 to 1/5 the amount of Birthday Bourbon or Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition bottles and 1/12 the amount of yearly George T. Stagg bottles.

The bottle I’m reviewing today is from barrel 9 and comes in at 129.4 proof. There were only 90 bottles that came from this particular barrel. A special thanks goes out to my friend and fellow Browns fan, Anthony for making this review happen! I sampled this neat in a glencairn.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Powerful scents of cherries and oak are the first to arrive to my nose. They are followed by sweet scents like toffee and brown sugar. There is one peculiar fruit note that I’m picking up that I don’t get often: grilled pineapple. This is something that I’ve seen Old Forester bottles have in it before and I’m happy to find it here. Lighter notes like cherry blossoms and vanilla play nicely with the ground cinnamon notes. I even detect a little bit of Hazelnut spread as well. Tannins like rich leather furniture show me that it’s not just the oak that gets to steal the show.

Palate: I’m not going to lie, there is a decent amount of heat in each sip. It’s not distracting nor does it change how I feel about this bottle. It’s like listening to a song you really like at a louder volume so you can “feel” it more. Moving past that, i find a plethora of fruit notes like cherries, sweetened apricots, citrus extract, strawberry ribbon candy and coconut shell. It all gets a boost by sweet caramel. Spices show up in the form of ground peppercorns, fiery cinnamon and chili powder. Tannins come in the form of shoe leather, cigar wrapper, baker’s chocolate and oak.

Now a word about the oak. Do I get a lot? Yes! But this isn’t the same style of oak I’ve found in from other Brown-Forman products that see time in heat-cycled warehouses. That kind has a varnish-like quality that would take a lot of time to develop in other brands. But this year’s release is missing it. The oak still tastes very mature, but there’s no varnish note. I felt like this needs to be highlighted.

Finish: The finish is very balanced and lasts a long time. Notes of oak furniture, conditioned leather, semi-sweet chocolate and fruit leathers are the longest. Brown sugar notes keep everything sweet. Its much more complex than I’m probably describing, but these highlights are really all that I was wanting to find in a finish.

Score: 9/10

I never like to go into a review with high expectations, but there’s no stopping it with this bottle. Everything from the packaging to the provenance seems elite. There’s not a flaw anywhere to be found, just pure, unadulterated bourbon glory.

The only thing that I’ll comment on is how this barrel from Warehouse G matured into a product that doesn’t immediately strike me as a Brown-Forman product. It’s missing this telltale wood varnish note that I always seem to find with bourbon aged in their heat-cycled warehouses. The odd part is, I’m almost positive this barrel (and the other KoKs for this year) saw heat-cycling at some point in their maturation. So what happened to it?  I’m not sure, but it allows lighter flavors and some of the rye notes to reveal themselves.  It’s different, but in all the best ways possible.

Final Thoughts

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight one thing about the 2023 release of King of Kentucky: a lot of the people who have experienced the other years’ releases aren’t speaking highly of the 2023’s. They complain that the magic isn’t there like it was in the first three years of its production. I am torn between believing them and thinking they’re making mountains out of molehills.

On the one hand, I know that small, special releases like this tend to put their best foot forward right out the gate and then begin to “coast” as time goes on. It’s also a fact that Brown-Forman is choosing a lot more barrels with each successive year. That would indicate they aren’t being as picky about which ones make the cut as they used to be. This is common when a company realizes they can now cash in on an earned reputation.

But I have to also take into account that every King of Kentucky release is comparatively small when you examine the size of other distillery’s special releases. It’s also the oldest product Brown-Forman has ever put out. I would say that based on taste alone, this easily tops all recent special releases from Heaven Hill, Beam (although I do love me some Frankfort Hardin’s Creek), Maker’s Mark, Willett and even much of the BTAC line. That’s no easy feat.

It’s with that all in mind that I say even if you’re in the camp that the 2023 King of Kentucky isn’t as special as previous releases, it was still special to me.  And this will continue to be the top bottle I hope I can find (or at least taste) every year.

Featured Products

  • Neat Traveler
  • View Larger
  • Description:The Aged & Ore Neat Traveler is a complete travel kit for spirits. We combined our widely praised Neat Glass with one of our 3oz Flight Bottles and housed them together in a custom EVA travel case. Perfect for a night away with your favorite pour. The tie
  • Bottle Flight
  • View Larger
  • Description:The Aged & Ore Bottle Flight is a premium set of 4 custom silicone wrapped glass bottles designed to transport and share samples of your favorite spirits. The flight bottles come in a custom EVA travel case that fits perfectly in any small bag. An Aged &
  • Travel Bundle
  • View Larger
  • Description:This Bundle combines two of our crowd favorite products, creating the ultimate travel bundle to bring along your favorite spirits and glassware. Bundle Includes: Neat Traveler (Gray) Bottle Flight (Gray) Note: This bundle is only available in gray and col

*Bourbon Culture is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.