“The king stays the king” – D’Angelo Barksdale
Maybe you’re not familiar with the monolithic mid-aughts must-see television program “The Wire.” If you aren’t, that’s totally fine. All you need to know is that it’s a crime drama that in its first season centered on one criminal organization’s quest to lay claim to territory in West Baltimore, and it’s frequently regarded as one of the better American television shows of all time.
During one scene from the third episode of the first season we find two low level members of the criminal organization playing checkers on a chess set. A higher ranking member, D’Angelo Barksdale, informs them that this simply won’t fly. “Chess is a better game” he tells them, before using the pieces as a metaphor to explain how both the game and “the game” are played. While describing how the various pieces and their movements work he’s asked “how do you get to be the king?” to which he replies “the king stays the king.”
It’s a scene that was instantly iconic and a metaphor that works well here as I take on the role of Mr. Barksdale and explain a bit about how the whiskey world works. In today’s market there’s no shortage of brands who hope to position themselves as producers of the next annually sought-after expression. What began among enthusiasts with the lionization of the Pappy Van Winkle lineup now extends to seemingly every offering that’s described as a “limited edition.” However, most of these would-be kings aren’t actually producing whiskeys worthy of your hard-earned money, dear reader, as you surely know if you frequently read this site.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented nearly every brand on the market from charging consumers a premium price for products that pale in comparison to the select few whiskeys that distinguish themselves from the pack. Those whiskeys include selections from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, the Heaven Hill Heritage Collection’s 17 Year Bourbon, and the subject of today’s review: Brown-Forman’s King of Kentucky.
The King of Kentucky brand traces its history back to 1881 with its founding by John Roach. It was later purchased by Brown-Forman in 1936 and by 1940 they had converted it from a bourbon to a blended whiskey to suit the prevailing tastes of the time. As whiskey’s popularity waned, so did the renamed “King Whisky,” and the brand was eventually discontinued in 1968. That brings us up to the modern era when, in 2018, Brown-Forman decided to revive the brand, position it as a super-premium offering, and return it to its roots as a high quality bourbon.
Now in its fifth year, the King of Kentucky brand has developed a feverish following as one of the most sought-after annual releases on the bourbon calendar. While King of Kentucky is extremely limited (this year marks its most widespread release with just 3,500 bottles available) that hasn’t stopped the word from spreading far and wide about its supposed superlative quality. Because today marks Malt’s first review of the expression I’ll be keeping my expectations in check and sampling the 2022 version as objectively as humanly possible.
I should note here that calling this the “2022 version” is a bit of a misnomer, as there are in fact two releases from King of Kentucky this year. Brown-Forman produced this 15 year expression of Kentucky straight bourbon that I have in front of me, as well as a hyper-limited 18 year old version in a run of only 250 bottles. The 15 year version retails for $250 and will see a release in Kentucky, with limited quantities also going to Illinois and Ohio, while the more allocated 18 year version retails for $350 and will be a Kentucky exclusive. This was a sample sent free of charge by Brown-Forman.
As for a few final details before we get into the review: this 2022 15 year-old version of King of Kentucky is a single barrel bourbon. I will be trying barrel no. 14, the so-called “Representative barrel”, which clocks in at 130.6 proof (65.3% ABV) and is barrel strength, then minimally filtered. The mash bill is 79% corn, 11% rye, and 10% malted barley.
King of Kentucky 15 Year 2022 – Review
Color: Light mahogany.
On the nose: Dark chocolate, caramel, pecans, and rich leather all jump out at first in a gooey delicious burst. Dark cherry, polished oak, and an intriguing light touch of pine pulsate underneath. Every layer is rich and commands attention on its own but they also work together in wonderful harmony. Cookie dough wafts out of the glass as well and each whiff holds a fair bit of heat that soon dissipates and allows for almond extract to come through. The nose is absolutely outstanding and I wish I could smell this all day long.
In the mouth: The first sip is hot but it’s absolutely bursting with those initial notes of dark chocolate, gooey caramel, and pecans. There’s also a heaping of burnt brown sugar and that rich leather flavor undergirding it all. Oak and pine exist in interplay with the leather as the backbone on the palate. Then the dark cherry develops mid palate and extends throughout the lengthy finish. Finally there’s also an elusive mint note that presents itself but seems to disappear every time I go searching for more. The mouthfeel is perhaps the most unremarkable part of this pour as it’s a bit middling, though it certainly holds rich layers of flavor. The finish, it should be said, is pretty drying with only the roof of the mouth and the edges of the tongue surviving its effects as brown sugar and all spice intensify over time after the initial sip.
While I’ve been a bit critical in denoting the finish as drying and the mouthfeel as average, it should be said that both are still quite enjoyable, and overall this is perhaps the best new release I’ve had all year. The flavor is multilayered, dark, and harmonious, while skewing sweet which falls squarely within my wheelhouse of preferred profiles.
Despite being a tad dry for my liking, the finish displays a lovely amount of balance between the oak and a lush dark cherry note which makes this pour most remarkable. In comparison to the Heaven Hill 17 Year bourbon which I previously had the opportunity to review, this is perhaps just as “dark” of a flavor profile but infuses far more fruit, caramel, and rich chocolate which places it a notch above in my book, this before considering that it’s priced $25 lower. In my opinion this complex whiskey showcases exactly what Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris is capable of, and it’s a worthy wearer of the crown.
As D’Angelo Barksdale said, “the king stays the king.”
Bottle image courtesy of Brown-Forman; they also provided this sample. Per Malt editorial policy, this does not affect our notes or scores but is being disclosed in the spirit of full transparency.