The King of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey has had an on again off again run since its inception back in 1881. It’s a whiskey that’s had more lives than an alley cat. Like most whiskey brands it dried up and production ceased during Prohibition. Soon after the 21st Amendment passed the King was acquired by Brown-Forman in 1936 from Selected Kentucky Distillers.
On a recent visit to Brown-Forman’s headquarters company historian Tim Holze shared the tale of King of Kentucky’s many lives. It’s been a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, a bonded bourbon, a light whiskey, a blended whiskey, a red label, a black label, a blend of bourbon and grain neutral spirits. Even the name has changed a few times from King of Kentucky to simply King. As brown spirits fell out of favor the brand was retired in 1968. The modern super-premium version relaunched in 2018 as a Kentucky Straight Bourbon with its original full name of King of Kentucky.
King of Kentucky Celebrates it Wood Anniversary with Two Releases for 2022
King of Kentucky is now an annual release of a single barrel inventory featuring a barrel-strength, minimally-filtered proof presentation, with each release and every barrel being unique. To celebrate its fifth year which happens to be its ‘Wood Anniversary’ Brown-Forman is doing a dual release with not just one but two releases.
“We are excited to celebrate the fifth year of the King of Kentucky brand with the return of two special expressions,” said Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris. “This brand demonstrates Brown-Forman’s commitment to and expertise in the growing American Whiskey category.”
For this year’s iteration Morris chose two lots of barrels that were distilled in 2004 and 2006.
“This year’s releases come from two production days, two years apart,” said Morris. “This showcases what a difference two years at these extreme ages make on the color, flavor, and aroma of this wonderful whiskey.”
According to Morris the King of Kentucky has a mash bill of 79% corn, 11% rye and 10% malted barley. He pointed out that this is not the Woodford Reserve or Old Forester mash bill, it’s a mash bill from a brand that Brown-Forman no longer owns. He didn’t say explicitly but it’s a mash bill that lines up with Early Times and if you take a close look at one of the historical ‘Sour Mash Notes’ below King of Kentucky and Early Times were mentioned in a letter when the spirits entered the New York metropolitan market with distributor Thomas J. Molloy Company, one of the largest wholesale liquor distributors at the time.
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A Dozen 18-Year-Old Heat Cycled Single Barrels
The first release is a very limited 18-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon pulled from a dozen barrels that netted out a meager 250 bottles. These barrels have been heat cycled for their entire life. Because of heat cycling this 18-year-old is the equivalent of a 27-year-old bourbon.
“It’s been in the barrel for 18 years in heat cycled warehouses,” explained Morris. “This is unheard of, 18 years of heat cycled conditions. Our sensory and analytical research tells that for every year of heat cycling it adds half a year of maturation. This is really like a 27-year maturation-controlled bourbon. But we can’t say that because the age is measured by time in the barrel. This whiskey is far more mature than 18 years in the barrel.
“Average yield of these 12 barrels was 10%. We had more barrels than 12 but in tasting them some of them were gone. They were either too woody or they were just gone [empty barrels]. A look at the total yield was approximately 250 bottles. Each barrel gave us about 20 bottles. So, this is very, very rare bourbon.”
18-Year-Old “Representative Barrel” Tasting Notes
Distilled: May 13, 2004
Barrel Entry Proof: 125°
Proof: 130.3 (65.15% ABV) Will vary by barrel.
No. of Barrels: 12
Barrel Yield: Average Yield 10%
No. of Bottles: 250
Age: 18 years
Aroma: Rich molasses, dark caramel and aged honeycomb are brightened with hints of tea leaf and ripe tree fruit.
Flavor: Baked spiced tree fruit, molasses, and sharp dark tea.
The King of Kentucky 18-year-old release features an embossed label with a gold-foiled stamp border and gold details. Approximately 250 bottles will be offered with a suggested retail of $349.99 for a 750ml bottle. This will be exclusive to the Kentucky market.
15-Year-Old Offers Wider Distribution
The second 2022 expression is a 15-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon that netted out more bottles and will have wider distribution.
15-Year-Old “Representative Barrel” Tasting Notes
Distilled: December 10, 2006
Barrel Entry Proof: 125°
Proof: 130.6 (65.3 %) Will vary by barrel.
No. of Barrels: 43
Barrel Yield: Average Yield 35%
No. of Bottles: 3,500
Age: 15 years
Aroma: Notes of dark sorghum, resinous oak and honey top a medley of dried fruit and rich cigar tobacco.
Flavor: Robust oak spices, dried fruit and sorghum.
The 15-year-old release features a premium embossed label with a stamp border and details. Approximately 3,500 bottles will be produced with a suggested retail of $249.99 for a 750ml bottle. While the majority of this year’s volume will remain in Kentucky, the expression will also be available in limited quantities in Illinois and Ohio.
Factoid: King of Kentucky Stars in the 1946 Film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’
“Every time a bell rings an angel takes their Angel’s Share.”
Perhaps not the exact line Zuzu Bailey repeats in the 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life but its close. In the case of this 18-year-old King of Kentucky the Angel’s heard a lot of bells over their 18 years and grabbed 90% of the bourbon in these barrels.
King of Kentucky made its movie debut in the 1946 release of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the scene where George Bailey is sitting at the bar with his guardian angel Clarence Odbody, the bartender serves George a double shot of bourbon. Upon close inspection, you’ll see that bourbon was none other than King of Kentucky bourbon.
Related Story – What is the Angel’s Share?
Due to the rarity of these barrels, there is no defined annual volume for King of Kentucky. Just like the extra time it takes for the liquid to mature, King of Kentucky’s package shows a personal craftsmanship. Every bottle comes enclosed in a decorative tin canister and tells the story of its origin through the details on the front and back of its package. All are filled, bottled, wax-dipped, and numbered by hand with details including proof, age, warehouse location, lot number, serial number, and barrel number, all selected by Master Distiller Chris Morris.