Just as they did with the Mourvèdre wine cask finish I reviewed this year, the Nelson brothers’ knack for cask finishing is proven again in this release. When given a full bottle sample my habit is to sip and make cocktails from the first half, allowing time for the rest of the whiskey to get some air; shortly after that point, I switch back to neat for reviewing, and then cocktails if there’s any left. Frankly, I’d be hard pressed to do any cocktailing with this. The supple sweetness picked up from the honey darn near makes it a cocktail on its own. If you can find one, I wager you’ll be delighted.
Sipped at proof, The King of Kentucky is a fierce ruler of the palate. Born of the Early Times whiskey mashbill, it packs a punch that’s amplified by aging 7 of its 14 years in a heat-cycled warehouse. I prefer high-proof whiskeys, yet at full strength, The King subdued me initially. I tried everything to tame its wrath: letting it breathe at length, spreading samplings over many weeks, swirling and agitating to the point of repetitive strain. But nothing doing: still overpowering.
Michter’s master distiller Pam Heilmann calls this, “my favorite Michter’s whiskey.” She’s a real and regular whiskey lady, so it was believable high praise when she said that to me—unsolicited and on multiple occasions—which put me on the hunt for it. Did I mention kicking myself for not buying all three bottles on the shelf when I found it 230 miles from home? I’m a fan of Michter’s Straight Rye Whiskey, but at just 84.8 proof, it’s a minor leaguer compared to its Barrel Strength sibling.
This whiskey spent 13 years in former bourbon casks before an unspecified finish in Mizunara oak barrels. Mizunara is a difficult-to-cooper Japanese wood that tends to leak due to its irregular wood grain, but purists revere it for ability to soften spirits and impart notes of vanilla and fresh fruit. Those attributes sound great and are largely on display here, but not potently enough. I appreciate it being a delicate spirit, but that left this drinker fighting too hard to discover its nuances. Perhaps after the liquid gets more air time, more details will emerge.
I was wowed by the Belle Meade Cognac cask finish bourbon released two years ago, but this exceeds that. When too many distilleries are using cask finishing to cover up flaws in subpar source material, Andy and Charlie Nelson are demonstrating their ample talents for using well-aged liquid and amplifying it with cask finishing.
The ladies were right on this one. By that I mean this: During the first group tasting of this spirit in 2017, Michter’s president Joe Magliocco gave this whiskey a thumbs down, believing the brand’s fans wouldn’t like it. Michter’s master distiller, Pam Heilmann, and its master of maturation, Andrea Wilson, believed otherwise and encouraged their boss to let the whiskey rest a little longer in the toasted barrel. A short time later, he tasted it, changed his mind and agreed they were right. Similarly, anyone who’s still not convinced rye whiskey is amazing should start here. Not only is it an exceptional expression, it’s arguably Michter’s best example of Heilmann’s and Wilson’s ability to manipulate wood to wring new flavors.