Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Distiller That Doesn't Distill - Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD)

After our recent series on independent whiskey bottlers, it struck me that I've never reviewed an independently bottled Bourbon. Given that there are so many on the market, I figured I should give them some attention, and since there is no bigger name in independent Bourbon than Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), I thought I would start there.

This Bardstown Kentucky bottler puts out Bourbon under multiple brands, none of which they distill, despite their name. It's widely speculated that much of their whiskey comes from Bardstown neighbor Heaven Hill, but the whiskey in any given bottle could be from any of Kentucky's nine distilleries. Today, I will try three of the four brands that make up KBD's small batch collection: Rowan's Creek, Pure Kentucky XO and Kentucky Vintage. The fourth in the series is Noah's Mill.

A quick note on the idea of a small batch Bourbon. The term "small batch" is commonly found on Bourbon labels; Four Roses, Jim Beam and others have employed it on various bottlings. Despite its popularity, the term has no fixed, legal definition. It is largely a marketing term, the purpose of which is to appeal to consumers looking for something artisanal and hand-crafted. If it's small batch, the reasoning goes, it must be good and worth a higher price, even if it's made by an industry giant like Beam. When I see the term, I ignore it as so much marketing puffery.

For today, all of the Bourbons I'm tasting have different alcohol levels and different age statements. The Kentucky Vintage has no age statement, though the label indicates it is aged for "many long years." The Pure Kentucky includes the designation XO (extra old), which is a French brandy designation indicating an age of at least six years. The term, however, has no meaning under US laws, and it's impossible to know what it means in this context; I've heard claims that the Pure Kentucky XO is between 10 and 11 years old. The Rowan's Creek is 12 years old.

Kentucky Vintage, 45% alcohol ($25-$35)

Sweet on the nose, with some vanilla. This is a very light Bourbon, with a bit of a soapy flavor, some fruit and a sweet finish. I get nothing in the way of rye in this. It's smooth to the point of slick.

Pure Kentucky XO, 53.5% alcohol ($30-$40)

A very distinct nose with an almost brandy like fruit scent. This has a real aged, Bourbon taste, with a woody, mustiness that is typical of older Heaven Hill Bourbons. It reminds me of the Elijah Craig 18 year old single barrel, which is a great whiskey.

Rowan's Creek, 12 years old, 50.05% alcohol ($35-$50).

Light on the nose with some rye. Big rye kick on the palate, followed by some corn sweetness and then back to big rye on the finish. A bit rough around the edges and harsher than I would expect for its age. Whatever this is, it's something with a high rye mash bill.

I'm impressed that these are three very different Bourbons. (Of course, they could be from entirely different distilleries). Looking at the three together, the Pure Kentucky XO rose above the rest for me, as I like that aged Bourbon flavor. The Kentucky Vintage, a lighter whiskey, was my least favorite and the Rowan's Creek was fine, but nothing I'd get excited about.

Next Wednesday: Irish Whiskey in May?

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