King of Kentucky 16 Year Bourbon 2023

“A dream is the bearer of a new possibility, the enlarged horizon, the great hope.” – Howard Thurman

King of Kentucky exists in rare air as one of the most coveted annual expressions in an overcrowded allocated whiskey release schedule. The likes of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, their highly sought-after Pappy Van Winkle lineup, and Four Roses Limited Edition serve as but a few of the increasingly enviable bottles that whiskey enthusiasts spend precious time and hard-earned money to acquire every autumn.

Unlike many of its contemporary challengers, however, King of Kentucky is a relative newcomer, having only entered the fray in the last five years. The brand was created back in 1881 and saw moderate success through 1936 when it was purchased by Brown-Forman. Then, in 1940, King of Kentucky was converted into a blended whiskey before eventually falling out of favor and being discontinued in 1968.

The modern King of Kentucky started as a statewide exclusive in 2018 before its venerable quality caused a spike in popularity that resulted in the craze to acquire it that we see today. Speaking personally, the 2022 version of King of Kentucky was my favorite contemporary whiskey of last year, and as such I awarded it the highest score I’ve ever given here at Malt.

Having subsequently had the pleasure of enjoying several more pours of various King of Kentucky vintages, my thoughts on the matter have only become more deeply entrenched. “The King” has on many nights, for me, worn the crown as the best bourbon to touch my Glencairn glass.

Imagine, then, my excitement to have received the sample I’ll be reviewing today: 2023’s 16-year-old King of Kentucky. Like last year, this year’s media sample is called the “Representative Barrel,” and it’s one that I imagine was cherry-picked as an exemplar of the expression. I raise that point to say: should you be lucky enough to find a bottle of King of Kentucky in the wild, it will most likely be a different barrel; such is the nature of single-barrel releases. I should also add that though taste is subjective, I have a reasonable expectation that this will be among the best barrels of this year’s product, if not the absolute best.

Does that mean I’ll be judging this sample with a grain of salt? Considering that wars have been waged on behalf of kings for such a spice, that seems pertinent. Let’s address the rest of the specs before proclaiming our judgment, shall we? The 2023 King of Kentucky is a 16-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and it is the 6th edition of the annual release. As aforementioned, King of Kentucky is a single-barrel expression that is non-chill filtered and presented at cask strength. The sample I’ll be trying today is 125.8 proof (62.9% ABV). The limited release produced only 3,800 bottles, which carry a suggested retail price of $300.

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the American whiskey landscape over the past decade or so, then the limited nature of this release and the high cost per bottle should be indicative to you that King of Kentucky has a healthy after-market presence. I’ve seen bottles of this expression made available for sale at the princely sum of $2,600 already. Despite that eye-watering figure, I will be scoring today’s sample – which was provided to me at no cost – as though I paid the $300 asking price for it. At last, let’s see if 2023’s King of Kentucky deserves to retain its crown as perhaps the best bourbon of the year.

2023 King of Kentucky 16 Year Bourbon 2023 – Review

Color: Amber.

On the nose: The aroma of this pour immediately fills the room, wafting out of the glass and washing over one’s senses. Cinnamon bark and figs tumble toward the olfactory glands with almond extract, gooey caramel, white pepper, and rich leather following in lockstep. It’s a familiar – albeit extremely refined – flavor profile that does a marvel of a job preparing the palate for what’s to come. Over time, this display of refinement only blossoms as dark chocolate, port wine, clove, fresh coconut, and Aleppo pepper flakes further inform the nose. Consider my thirst whetted.

In the mouth: On the palate, I found that Aleppo pepper and coconut shavings gently roll over the tongue before the liquid fans out to the edges of the mouth, where it sets anchor and further blooms with notes of leather, Sugar Daddy milk caramel sweetness, and toasted almond to be found. As cinnamon dashes up the roof of the mouth like a halfback hitting a hole, the quotidian viscosity becomes noticeable – but easy to dismiss – as the transition to the finish begins. There, I found more chocolate making its way to the fore along with clove and nutmeg as each sip slowly sizzles and recedes. One last note I discovered after sitting with this a while was that the finish began to take on a striking and creamy resemblance to coconut rice pudding.


An incredibly rich nose – reminiscent of other decadent ultra-aged bourbons like Michter’s 20 – sets the stage for a flavorful, yet surprisingly spry, sipping experience. Pressed for criticism, the austere mouthfeel causes this to drink below its considerable proof and intensifies the sting felt on the finish. I only bring that up for the sake of splitting hairs, because this pour overdelivers in the flavor department and impressively opts for intrigue over oomph, providing the complexity of previous iterations while eschewing some of their boldness.

The 2023 King of Kentucky proves yet again to be a superlative whiskey, offering the regal experience one dreams of when spending a few hundred dollars on a liquid. I’m reminded each year that, despite my reticence to pay such a sum on a regular basis, there are indeed bourbons capable of rising to the challenge. Because my preference ever-so-slightly lies with 2022’s 15-year-old King of Kentucky (which was priced $50 lower than this year’s 16-year-old sibling), I think it deserves a slightly lower score. Hey, it ain’t quite regicide but with so many high-quality limited edition bourbons hitting shelves for this year I can’t confidently say this is the best American whiskey of 2023.

It ain’t easy being the King.

Score: 8/10


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