Inside a chilly brick-walled warehouse, Brown-Forman executives told a small gathering of spirits journalists that it’s bringing back its King of Kentucky brand, a powerhouse 14-year-old whiskey set for a June release and at a $199 MSRP.
I’ll admit it, I’d never heard of King of Kentucky, and except for some whiskey wonks among us, I’m betting no one else had either. Few in the room were even born when Brown-Forman sent the King of Kentucky into exile in 1968, when it was a 1-year-old whiskey blended with grain-neutral spirits. If you can taste that mentally, you know it’s not a stretch to say drinkers were pardoned by the King’s absence.
Now, however, with the interregnum behind it, the King is headed back to the throne, this time as Brown-Forman’s most expensive bourbon ever released. And based on its lineage and the sample we sipped, this emperor not only has clothes, it’s stylin’!
More than a decade ago, when the fires of bourbon’s return began to glow, B-F master distiller Chris Morris earmarked several barrels for a special long-aged product. Born of the Early Times mashbill (79 percent corn, 11 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley), the barrels would spend the next seven years in one of the company’s heat-cycled warehouses in Shively. Later, Morris moved them to Warehouse O, the company’s only ambient temperature storage to slow the whiskey’s maturation. Seven years later, and after losing an average 70 percent of those barrels’ contents to some thirsty angels, Morris deemed the maturate ready for market.
Based on the surging demand for high-proof whiskeys, the market is more than ready for The King of Kentucky. Since each bottling will be done from single barrels, proof will vary from 125 to 130. Every bottle of this initial 960-bottle release will be signed by Morris, who joked about anticipated hand cramps.
Lucky us, we got to taste the stuff, about a half-ounce alongside equal “reference” pours of Early Times Bottled-In-Bond and Old Forester 100 Proof. At 125.8 proof, the King’s aro
mas charge out of the glass as if by edict, and its full flavor wastes no time establishing dominion over the palate. It’s a scion that quite easily upstages its father. (No reviews today, but a full one is forthcoming.)
The King of Kentucky will be a royal pain in the neck to bottle. For example, at Woodford Reserve in Versailles, bottles are filled at the rate of 100 per minute. By comparison, bottling this spicy sovereign will happen at the lowly pace of about 100 per day. The manual machinations required to fill each bottle, label it, enrobe its top and neck in black wax, sign it and then place it into a metal cannister is the work of indentured servants. But as Team B-F said repeatedly, this whiskey isn’t about mass production or even making money, it’s about making a quality statement.
Morris put it this way: “When we set this (bourbon) back years ago, it was without name or plan. But we’re Brown-Forman, and we think carefully, act slowly and in measured ways. We don’t rush to be the first.”
Sadly, for the many bourbon drinkers who’ll want this, a mad dash will ensue to get it. Equally certain: Those who seek it on the secondary market will pay a king’s ransom for it.