The long wait is over, yet Brett Connors can’t rest easy.
On Saturday, March 26, Castle & Key Distillery will release Batch 1 of its first bourbon, a much-anticipated 4-year-old sweet-mash spirit. As head blender for the distillery, Connors is concerned about the crowd expected at the historic Old Taylor site in Millville, Ky.
“Should we hire security because people will be here—maybe some will try to camp out before we open, waiting to get in?” Connors said. If the recent torrent of texts to his phone is any indication, yes, hire security. “It feels like I’ve gotten 5,000 texts about this bourbon from people I wasn’t even sure were my friends.”
Half of the 80-barrel lot for Batch 1 will be sold at the distillery’s gift shop. The other half will head to the wider market (detailed at the end of this story). Extending the usual higher-price courtesy to retailers, the distillery will sell its bottles for $55 while suggesting a market retail price of $50. Truth is bottles won’t last long at either price, or at the inevitably jacked-up costs at retail or on the secondary market.
“We wanted our first bourbon to be like our ryes—all our spirits, really—affordable to people who appreciate what we’re doing,” Connors said. “We could have diluted this to get more bottles, but it’s always been part of our decision process to let the whiskey tell us what proof works best.”
If you ask Castle & Key fans, the wait for its bourbon—despite multiple releases of its terrific rye whiskeys—has been inexorable. Owners gave drinkers a glimpse into its long-game commitment when it rolled out its first gin. Yes, gin. The delicious stuff many bourbon drinkers say they hate. Its vodka, made from C&K’s bourbon new make, is aromatic and flavorful and delicious sipped neat, just like its gins. C&K’s flagship London Dry gin is fantastic, but its most recent biannual gin releases are extraordinary.
Meantime, it contract distilled for a long list of clients while squeezing in time on the still for its own liquid. That formula of filling barrels for others, charging them warehouse rent on those casks, paying down loans, bills and salaries—while minimizing and delaying the production of their own bourbon—was tough, but necessary, said Will Arvin, owner of Castle & Key.
“Not everybody understands that, but we knew going in that we’d do it that way,” Arvin said. Some time ago, cofounder Wes Murry sold his shares in the business to Arvin, making him the majority owner. “We’re excited about this new release. A lot of waiting and sleepless nights led to this.”
And the wait tastes worth it. This isn’t a proper bourbon review, but let’s talk specifics while we’re here. It’s 98 proof (49 percent ABV) and made from a mash bill of 73 percent white corn, 10 percent rye and 17 percent malted barley. Barrel ages range from 4-5 years, and all came from the first three floors of Warehouse B. For those who’ve been to the distillery, that’s the mammoth brick warehouse known to Castle & Key workers as “the maneater.” Why the gruesome name? Because workers can enter only on one end of the 534-foot-long building. (For those workers’ sake, let’s hope casks on the far side of the structure will rest for many years.)
“Due to the temperature and humidity on those floors, we lost only six-and-a-half proof off our entry proof of 107,” Connors said. Those ideal conditions come from the building’s location at the bottom of a steep valley and near the cool waters of Glenns Creek, a water source used upstream by Woodford Reserve Distillery. “So, proofing down to 98, which was where we thought it tasted the best, is only 2.5 proof below barrel strength.”
Such limited dilution gets at least some of the credit for the bourbon’s rich aromas and mouthfeel. Nosing it, Connors called out notes of honeycomb, yeast rolls and stone fruit.
“The palate’s very round, welcoming and full,” he said. “A friend recently called it ‘a kind of oatmeal cookie on the palate,’ and it does have a wonderful grain and golden raisin flavor.
“I just think it’s infinitely drinkable, which is the goal. We didn’t want anything that would freak people out. We’ll save those for single barrels and limited editions. We think this is just a really pretty bourbon. We didn’t mess it up.”
“What I mean by that is we wanted the finished bourbon to highlight the efforts of the whole production team,” said Conners, adding that blenders too often take all the credit for finished goods. “We work with great barrels made by Speyside Cooperage out of Ohio, and we have an amazing warehouse on site. Our job on the blending team is to highlight all the work that’s gone into it.”
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Despite that good result, Connors revisited his worry about the release event. While his handwringing might otherwise be allayed by revenue from an expected sellout of the product, it’s that exact likelihood that leaves him uneasy.
“We’re pretty confident that all we have here will sell out that day, and everyone who comes to get some won’t,” he said. The gift shop also has plenty of great rye, gin and vodka. “But it’s just where bourbon is right now. These days people get mad about not getting what they came for.”
For those who won’t be at the distillery for the release, look for Batch 1 in the following states: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. If you fail to find any Batch 1, know that the release of Batch 2—a little spicier and more minerally than Batch 1, yet still excellent—will happen in May.
Steve Coomes is editor of BourbonBanter.com. A Louisville restaurant industry veteran turned award-winning food writer, he has edited and written for dozens of national trade and consumer publications including Pizza Today, Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living over his 31-year journalism career. As a spirits writer, Steve's work can be found in Bourbon Plus, Bourbon Review, Bourbon & Banter, WhiskeyWash.com and other publications. In 2014, he authored the book, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and has authored other titles as a private ghostwriter.
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