“The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding” – Audre Lorde
It was a picture perfect day in late spring. I was at the highly regarded Brooklyn watering hole Travel Bar, entertaining friends from out of town. It’s something of a ritual that I relish: introducing friends visiting from afar to the New York bar scene, which contains some of the finest establishments in the entire world. On this particular occasion I was with whiskey friends whom I had never met before, but with whom I had developed a warm relationship in online circles through our shared passion for America’s native spirit.
Somewhere between our low-proof starter pours and an eye-watering 163.6 proof expression, the topic of our shared fascination for hazmat whiskey was broached. Hazmat, shorthand for “hazardous material” is a category of whiskey that’s over 140 proof, so-named because of its volatile nature. In fact, because whiskeys with alcohol content over 70% ABV are considered highly flammable, the FAA has banned them from being taken on a plane. It was during this discussion that my friends let slip that they were in town for the purpose of picking a single barrel from a local distillery. That’s not all; they informed me that, of the samples being rolled out for selection, all of them would be hazmat barrels from Brooklyn’s own Kings County Distillery.
Another hazmat expression from Kings County was previously covered here on Malt by Taylor and, given how wildly his impression of that offering deviated from his typically austere scores, I knew that these amped-up samples would be worth exploring. When my friends graciously extended an offer for me to join them, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Not only are hazmat bourbons generally rare (and thus highly sought-after) but, given how well-regarded Kings County is, I knew that joining the barrel pick would be a one-of-a-kind experience.
Oh, how right I was! We were initially greeted at The Gatehouses tasting room by Jen Blair, Kings County’s NYC PR and Market Manager. Jen led us to the Paymaster Building in Brooklyn’s historic Navy Yard, which has become the brand’s premier barrel aging facility. Both buildings have a venerable charm, with the former resembling a castle and the latter featuring vintage flourishes that hearken back to its heyday as the backdrop for the infamous 1860’s Brooklyn Whiskey Wars.
Once inside we were greeted by none other than Colin Spoelman: whiskey historian, one-time UGG model, and Kings County co-founder. Equal parts easy-going and erudite, Colin welcomed us first with a behind the scenes tour of his distillery. He then took us through the history of the brand as only he can, having been there from its inception. I encourage you to read Taylor’s previous coverage of Kings County, where you can learn about that history in Colin’s own words. It’s a fantastic story and one that puts into context the effortless cool captured by their understated branding.
Following our informative tour, we finally sat down and commenced with the most anticipated portion of our afternoon: the selection process. Laid out before us were three small sample bottles and three glasses, already containing said samples. We were then joined over the phone by Shawn Kim, owner of 58 Wine & Liquor, who couldn’t make the trip but would be the man responsible for selling the pick.
Colin and Jen talked us through what made those samples so exceptional. Due to them being smaller barrels and some of the oldest in brand’s history, the angels ate away at a good deal of the distillate, which in turn pushed the proof much higher than others in Kings County’s inventory. We opted to try each of the samples without discussing them amongst ourselves or learning about the specs beforehand, in order to allow the whiskey to speak for itself.
For me, the first sample was simply delicious and had a great amalgamation of high heat and sweetness. Brownie bits and a touch of marshmallow melded with cooked apples and some mesquite flavors reminiscent of BBQ sauce, which made it hard to put down. The second sample was surprisingly light, packed with pears and honey on a bed of butterscotch, with citrus coming through on the back end. Finally, the third sample was similar to the first but had a bit more cherry and chocolate truffle notes. It was also delicious, though a bit tamer than the first sample.
Once we began discussing our impressions it was clear that we all fell in line unanimously: sample one was the boldest and the most alluring of the bunch. Sample two was enticing as an “off-profile” choice, but also by far the most delicate of the selections… if such a thing can be said about whiskey over 140 proof. The final sample was the first one eliminated, not because it wasn’t fantastic, but because it simply could not stand up to the first sample.
And so after briefly deliberating and more lengthily mulling over the options in front of us (you know, for science) we selected a hazmat Kings County barrel. We concluded by peppering Colin with a plethora of questions and picking up some additional bottles from their gift shop before ambling out of the Paymaster Building into the mercifully cool afternoon air.
Because this memorable experience has rendered me biased in regards to this review I’ve sent a sample to Malt’s fearless leader, Taylor, to gain the benefit of his more objective insight. For good measure, I’ve also sent a sample to the man most uniquely qualified to assess Kings County bourbon: Colin Spoelman. It’s my hope that we coalesce around something of a consensus about the pick though, of course, we all have different palates and attachments to the brand which will inevitably color our impressions.
Before commencing with the specifics and our collective notes, I’d also like to make mention of the fact that I’ve previously been unmasked as someone generally cynical about the usefulness of single barrel reviews. While I continue to hold that opinion, I think reviewing this bottle offers a unique insight into Kings County’s barrel picking process and additionally hope it informs you, dear reader, about the merits (or perils) of hazmat bourbon.
Now the specifics: this bottle clocks in at 147.4 proof or 73.7% ABV (correct proof is on the front label. The back label has an incorrect version of the proof from when we initially made the selection which was 146.8, not 148.6, so it got hotter while waiting to be bottled!) The mash bill is 80% corn and 20% malted barley. The price was $60 for a 200ml bottle, and the total yield was limited to 90 bottles due to evaporation. I managed to write this review before sending samples from the remainder of my bottle to friends, because I wanted as many people as possible to try this unique limited release. Lastly I’d like to thank Colin, Jen, Morgan, Ian, and Shawn for allowing me to take part in this pick.
Color: Dark amber, almost mahogany
On the nose: Molasses and rich butterscotch to go with a meatiness that’s intriguing. I’m immediately thinking of Kansas City style BBQ, it has an enduring sweetness despite also containing a bit of smoke courtesy of the barrel char, and a welcome tart cherry rhubarb note. The nose is dense and resplendent with darkly sweet and savory notes. There’s also a medley of spice notes most prominently led by cayenne and oregano, in addition to a bit of bay leaf simmered in with tomato paste. There’s even a touch of nectarine nestled underneath all of the heat, which provides a bright balance to the sweet notes that run throughout the nosing. Potent and enchanting, though the prominent ethanol presence curbs the experience a bit. Lastly, the longer this sits the more prominent the well aged oak note becomes.
In the mouth: It has an immediately oily mouthfeel that almost sizzles up the palate and spreads like napalm with bits of heat darting in every direction. A pink eraser note that transforms into juicy fruit gum, that then transforms into a sort of aloe vera-like green note paints the roof of the mouth. The BBQ style oddly turns into more Memphis than Kansas City, as the deep sweetness of the nose is supplanted by a more subtle sweetness that melds well with the heavy barrel char, leather, overripe black cherry, and black pepper spice that flourishes on the palate. There’s a sort of smoky molasses note that extends throughout the finish that leaves me sucking my tongue to wring out all of the remaining sweetness, while the lengthy finish provides a significant Kentucky hug. Upon repeat sips there’s also a creamy caramel corn that permeates.
I think the nose is WONDERFUL and, though the palate doesn’t deliver on all of its promise, it too holds an alluring medley of flavors. The proof that isn’t evident on the nose does encroach on the palate, particularly just before the finish but by that point the waves of flavor have already staked their claim and won the war. Having admitted my bias at the outset, I should note my criticisms here include the following: the proof is at times distracting and though there are a lot of layers of flavor they’re not entirely harmonious. That said, I believe this deserves a score in accordance with “Great” on Malt’s scale despite carrying a steep price.
Color: Medium-dark chestnut.
On the nose: As expected/hoped for, this jumps out of the glass with a walloping wall of aromas. Very ripe stone fruit aromas (cherries, apricots, plums) are accented by exotically spicy notes of kola nut, cinnamon, and red pepper. There’s an acetone note swirling around here as well that creates a modest distraction, but refocusing my nose allows me to tease out rich scents of chocolate fudge as well as a dark, mineralic scent of volcanic rock.
In the mouth: A tart cherry note blooms immediately at the front of the mouth, being joined by an ashy flavor and texture on the tip of the tongue. This picks up heat and astringency as it moves up the tongue toward the center of the mouth, where the dominant note is of a very tannic, almost sour woodiness that is redeemed only by some subtle fruitiness. This calms down significantly as it nears the finish, where that sourness recedes and is replaced by some more of that campfire ashiness as well as a very subtle, pleasant touch of roasted coffee beans. This lingers with a pulsating heat that radiates across the roof of the mouth, tongue, gums, and lips.
Conclusions: This has some very nice notes, but also some awry aromas and flavors that force themselves upon the nose and tongue. That acetone element on the nose can be overlooked, but the sour woodiness dominates the palate in a way that crowds out some of the more appealing flavors.
This is notably inferior to the prior barrel of hazmat King’s County I enjoyed, and I am wondering if this has to do with the smaller barrel size (15 gallons in this case, versus that 30 gallon barrel)? It’s not quite as expensive as that one ($225 for 750ml equivalent, vs. $320), though still pricy in the grand spectrum of bourbon. I’m glad to have tried it, but would be on the fence about whether to buy a bottle myself, which I am reflecting with a score in the middle of the range.
I should say from the outset I was in the room when you picked the barrel with Morgan and Ian, so had a subjective memory of this particular barrel. I also know there was big but typical angel’s share (over 50%) since it was entered in March 2014. I actually looked up what happened in March 2014 and Sia released Chandelier, so: if you can imagine a world before you heard that song 10,000 times, that’s when this whiskey was born. So, this wasn’t a fully blind tasting. I also, for fun and comparison, had a glass nearby with Kings County’s Barrel Strength #13 127.4 proof, 2022 Blender’s Reserve 129.6 proof, 7-year, and Blender’s Reserve 2021 140 proof, 6-year.
Color: Rich mahogany brown. This is a very dark American whiskey, but nice color on the edges. I’ll also mention this leaves all kinds of residue on the glass. These hazmat whiskeys are so concentrated that they evaporate fast and leave a lot of char and oil behind. Definitely something that even regular barrel strength whiskeys don’t do quite so dramatically. It’s quite literally 3/4 pure alcohol, but crazy that what remains makes all the difference.
On the nose: One of the best things about older whiskeys, from my perspective, is the way the older wood contributes especially to the nose. It’s a scent you can kind of pick up in a wooden stairwell in an old house, a place where there’s a lot of aging wood that has concentrated on itself over time. Whiskey ages, but so does wood, and that doesn’t get talked about enough when we discuss old whiskeys. This also has a nice sour note on the nose, like old hay, so there’s a more organic scent that goes beyond mere old wood or old furniture. It’s a very rich smell, with molasses and chocolate. This is not necessarily an old bourbon compared to some teenager Kentucky whiskeys, but those don’t always land in heavily oaked territory. Make no mistake, this has the nose of older bourbon, the small barrel contributes to that here, and while this can be overdone, I draw a distinction clearly on the nose with something younger from Kings County, like this Barrel Strength #13, which has a totally lovely nose, but it’s not as musty or dank. There’s also a burnt sugar note; almost a toffee, but even more carbonized than that. One other note: this has a lot of nose; it’s a very fragrant whiskey.
In the mouth: This is very hot whiskey. But as heavy handed as this is on the nose, the palate – once you get past the heat – is gentle. That burnt sugar note is here, but butterscotch, molasses, and even honey. There’s a lot of flavor that could be described as spice: cinnamon and hot pepper especially, maybe black pepper. I remember thinking of this as a dry whiskey when we tasted the barrels at the distillery, but here, separated from that context, it’s anything but. Really sweet with caramelized sugar, honey, and dark corn syrup on the finish. I do also note that it takes a little while to get used to heat, or maybe the alcohol numbs certain tastebuds, opening up the way for others. This is pretty much 2:1 ratio to normal bourbon in terms of alcohol content, so honestly, I have to sip and then let my palate rest.
For fun, I compared this to 3 other Kings County whiskeys. Barrel strength #13 is just a little less intense all around, but has a lovely buttery toffee flavor without the extreme depth that these other three present. The 2022 Blender’s Reserve has maybe a richer grouping of notes: more of a pipe organ of notes on a broader spectrum, if this 8-year hazmat is playing the middle notes louder. The 2021 Blender’s Reserve is a closer flavor analogue, with that organic note of old hay and stairwell wood, but it’s a little gentler on the palate (being lower proof perhaps, even at 70% alcohol). In this context, that wood-paneled room, old barn aspect feels singular to this whiskey. If you’ve been on the lower floor of a Kentucky rickhouse on a hot day, that’s the flavor that’s going on here.
With a little water added, things change a bit. Those higher, sharper alcohol notes give way to a rich and soft caramel. The burnt sugar note that is so intense at full proof becomes delicious butterscotch. I was a little worried this one might fall apart at lower proof, just given how much flavor was concentrated and how dominant the alcohol is at very first sip. But we put a lot of effort into our whiskeys, and pot stills add a lot of oils that really keep the whiskey together at any proof. It dilutes very nicely. As a side note, I got to try out my new Glencairn pipette, a nice little piece of drinking paraphernalia I picked up at Tales of the Cocktail last week, as practical as the Glencairn itself, so a little plug for that.
I think it would be foolish to try to rate this whiskey. I believe all the whiskeys we make are excellent, but this is one that will appeal to the very well-traveled, but adventurous bourbon drinker, and especially anyone fond of barrel strength. If you can’t find Stagg, this will do, and you might just like it better in any case. It’s certainly in that kind of company in terms of commercial analogues.
There aren’t a lot of whiskeys that are playing heavy oak character and extremely high proof in quite this way. So let’s just say in conclusion that this is a rich, complex, nuanced whiskey of a very rare form, for any bourbon. I will also add that this is maybe the end of an era for these small format barrels from Kings County, as most of our extra-aged whiskeys will be coming out of 53 gallon barrels from here on out. We didn’t really intend to age 15-gallon barrels for 8 years, and we probably never will again. So, these private barrels and special releases from this year and last are a kind of turning point for us as a distillery, and it’s a little sad because these whiskeys will never be replicated or approximated. This year’s Bottled-in-Bond will be a set of 6-year and 7-year offerings, all from 53s, pushing us just a little bit more like traditional Kentucky bourbon. Our hope is that the flavor hews pretty closely to what people know from Kings County, but if we drift at all, it will be arguably more mainstream out of 53s.
I think it speaks to something larger that’s happening in craft, which is that many craft distillers are growing up and realizing that the Kentucky program – column stills, standardized barrels, blending by age vs. flavor – are all things that make economic sense. What remains to be seen is how much of that our craft friends embrace or continue to resist. I thought we had sworn off small barrels, but I ordered 500 more 30-gallon barrels for next year, in part because of whiskeys like this one. I let the internet chatter about small barrel and economic imperatives for standard format barrels outweigh the reality on the ground, which is that you can make a really remarkable bourbon in a small barrel if you are careful and patient, and I don’t know any other clearer proof of that statement than this 8-year whiskey.
Frank’s Final Thoughts
I hope that seeing three differing opinions on the same expression highlights the inherent subjectivity of whiskey for you, dear reader. Subjectivity is thus truly an immutable fact of whiskey reviews. While all three of us share some notes in common, our appreciation of and level and enjoyment for those aromas and flavors is colored by our personal preferences and life experience. Those differences of opinion are part of what makes whiskey such an incredible joy to share with others as we discover that, much like the human experience – much of what binds us together also enables us to more clearly observe our differences. Taken as a whole I hope these three opinions can lead you to a deeper understanding of Kings County’s whiskey and, at any rate. I’m overjoyed to have been able to share in this tasting experiment with two consummate professionals.