This is a prototype of what King of Kentucky will look like. | Photo by Sara Havens

At a small gathering on Tuesday, Master Distiller Chris Morris of Brown-Forman offered up the first tasting notes of a new limited-edition premium bourbon release the company will debut in June.

How limited are we talking? The first series of King of Kentucky, a resurrection of a long-retired B-F brand, will yield only 960 bottles and sell for a suggested retail price of $199 — although we suspect, if you can find it, it will be priced higher. The 14-year-old bourbon will only be released in Kentucky.

King of Kentucky was purchased by Brown-Forman in 1936. | Photo by Sara Havens

The original King of Kentucky label was named in honor of horse racing, also known as the “sport of kings.” It was first patented in 1888 and later acquired by Brown-Forman in 1936.

Interestingly enough, the brand was featured, somewhat by accident — there was no product placement back then — in the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” when George Bailey drowns his sorrows at a bar.

The brand was retired in 1968.

Morris told us that Brown-Forman wanted to enter the premium bourbon market and had the foresight more than 10 years ago to hold back some “special” barrels. And although the yeast strand and mash bill are the same as Early Times, this bourbon has morphed into something quite unique — with totally different taste profiles.

Master Distiller Chris Morris and SVP Chief Marketing Officer John Hayes talk about King of Kentucky. | Photo by Sara Havens

Ten years ago they didn’t know what they’d do with the barrels, but seeing as bourbon was beginning its upward trajectory in interest and sales and B-F didn’t have an ultra-premium brand, Morris said there was hope for an innovative, tasty product.

The bourbon was aged seven years in the company’s standard heat-cycled warehouses in Shively, and then selected to age in Warehouse O, the only non-heat-cycled warehouse B-F owns in Louisville, another seven years. That was done because the angel’s share, or evaporated product, is much larger in heat-cycled warehouses than in regular ones.

However, at the 14-year mark, many of the barrels were still low on yield by 70 percent, hence the extremely limited release. Morris said the bourbon would continue to be released each year, but the age, proof and other details might change.

King of Kentucky will be a single-barrel bourbon, bottled at barrel proof — which will range anywhere between 125-135 proof — and will be filtered only to remove char and debris.

Also, each bottle will be hand-labeled, signed by Chris Morris (yes, he plans to personally sign each bottle by hand) and sealed with black wax. They’ll also be sold in a canister. There’s even a special bottling line dedicated to the product, which bottles two barrels a day. If you want a comparison, what this special bottling line does in two weeks, the bottling line at Woodford Reserve could do in 10 minutes.

The tasting was held inside a barrel warehouse in Shively, the perfect setting to welcome a new product into the world. We first tasted the Early Times Bottled-in-Bond, followed by the Old Forester 100 Proof, and then the coveted King of Kentucky.

King of Kentucky (middle) is noticeably darker than the Early Times and Old Forester 100 because of its age. | Photo by Sara Havens

The bourbon expressed immense notes of tropical fruit — pineapple, coconut — followed by the typical peppery spice and sweet caramel and vanilla notes found in most bourbons. The product didn’t feel too hot, being at a stout 125 proof, which is a sign of a perfectly balanced mixture of distillate, barrel and time.

Asked if Morris believes in hoarding rare bottles or enjoying them, he said: “I don’t save, I drink.” Let’s hope everyone who is lucky to get their hands on a King of Kentucky holds the same sentiment — and shares with friends, family and strangers who write about bourbon.

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."