King of Kentucky is one of the most sought-after and fleeting bourbon releases of the last few years. Even as a whiskey writer and spirits competition judge with lots of sources in the industry, I’ve had a hard time getting my hands on a bottle myself. Luckily, that drought ended when a bottle of King of Kentucky 5th Edition landed on my desk this week ahead of its release. Spoiler alert: this whiskey lives up to the hype and then some.
But before we get into that, let’s dive into why this super rare whiskey is so special. It was launched five years ago by Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris, Brown-Forman’s man in Kentucky. Morris is best known for his work on Woodford Reserve and Old Forester, among a lot of other hats he wears (Morris also helps make the barrels of Brown-Forman’s other big brand, Jack Daniel’s). He started this particular label to highlight the amazing barrels hiding in the Brown-Forman rickhouses in Kentucky.
This year’s first release (of only two) is a 15-year-old single barrel expression that retails for $250. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Here’s the rub: these bottles are so revered and rare that the aftermarket price is 10 times that, easily.
Last year’s release is selling for $3,500 already. And here’s the even bigger rub: you’ll need to be in Kentucky for the release in order to snag a bottle (though there will be some bottles in Ohio and Illinois this year too). Oh, and King of Kentucky is often considered the best bourbon of the year by whiskey critics and fans alike. Add all of that up, and you have the perfect storm for a rare release that costs thousands of dollars the second after it hits shelves.
Is it worth it? Oops, yeah, I kind of spoiled that already. Let’s just dive in and see what’s in the bottle.
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King of Kentucky Single Barrel 5th Edition, Barrel No. 14
Average Price: $249 MSRP
This year’s King of Kentucky is a 15-year-old bourbon made from a mash of 79% corn, 11% rye, and 10% malted barley. The spirit — made at the Brown-Forman Distillery in West Louisville (Shively) — went into the barrel on December 18, 2009, at 125 entry-proof. After 15 long years, only about 35% of the whiskey was left in the barrel. 43 single barrels were then chosen for this release and individually bottled as-is, yielding about 3,500 bottles of King of Kentucky.
King of Kentucky bottles feel like a bit of a throwback merged with winning a Golden Ticket. The glass is classic and dipped in wax. The label is a golden ticket of sorts with a white-on-black simplicity that pops with gold trim. The whole vibe imbues simplicity with class.
The nose opens with a hoecake with a sourdough edge which leads to very old boots rubbed with blonde Kiwi polish as pitchy fir mingles with dank honey with a sprinkling of dried berries and soft spices (think nutmeg and allspice) with a thin layer of used vanilla husks next to a faint whisper of honeydew melon and a twinge of chili pepper tobacco.
The palate is boldly mounted with ABV buzzing that leads to an avalanche of hot spices — Red Hots, sharp ginger, dried and woody chili peppers — that peaks with a blast of heat from the ABVs before lush vanilla cream cools everything down with notes of black cherry sweetness and old wicker. And then another wave of heat arrives on your senses with a woody spice matrix that’s then tempered by dark chocolate powder, brandy-soaked raisins, soft oats, buttery toffee, chocolate-covered espresso beans, dry cedar, and wet pipe tobacco cut with black soil, and cherry stems. The end leans into that earthiness with cherrywood tobacco and more dried berries, slowly — and I mean slowly — fading through the warmth of the finish.
This is a wild ride from start to finish. It’s bold, brash… and bombastic. That second wave of heat and flavor notes is fascinating, a big “wow” factor. That might also mean that you may need a rock to calm this one down. I can tell you that tasting it with a few drops of water really opened it up into the stratosphere, so don’t hold back.
99/100 — This is a damn near perfect pour of whiskey. It’s not only bold, it’s 100% unique. This stuff rages against the machine on your palate in the best possible way while making you want more, louder, bigger, harder — and then it delivers!