Usually, we try to review spirits that have broad geographic availability — something that you could find if you are browsing a liquor shelf in New York or Los Angeles, Montana or Mississippi. But every so often we dig into some regional spirits as well, and the world of regional Kentucky bourbon is an interesting breeding ground for new brands. Kentucky Par is one of those bottles you can really only find in Kentucky but, thanks to a friend that recently made the trek there, we were able to get our hands on a sample to review.
This bourbon story actually starts out with a soft drink from the turn of the 20th century.
Frank H. Stitzel (brother of the famous Philip, Jacob, and Frederick who founded the Stitzel distillery associated with Pappy Van Winkle bourbon) founded the Kentucky Parfay Company in 1913 to produce an eponymous soft drink that they called the Kentucky Parfay. Not much information remains about that regional soft drink, but in 1917 the company was purchased by Walter A.“WaWa” Radford, who continued to produce the concoction.
The soda had a regional following in the Louisville area, where people would regularly order a Kentucky Parfay either “with” or “without” — the missing word at the end being “bourbon”. The spiked version of the drink remained a common way to surreptitiously order spirits from the bartender during prohibition.
During that time, Walter’s wife Beth “Ganny” Thomas Radford started buying up barrels of bourbon from distilleries who no longer had a market for their product. She held onto those barrels until the end of prohibition, paying pennies on the dollar and consequently making a fortune off sales of the now-12-year-old bourbon when prohibition ended in 1933.
Together, the couple then launched Kentucky Par whiskey, opening a new distillery on the grounds of the Kentucky Parfay factory and finding success in distribution of the spirit for may years to come.
Following the end of World War Two, the company was renamed The Radford Company and re-focused their efforts on distribution of imported spirits. The Kentucky Par whiskey brand faded into obscurity as the company moved on from its manufacturing roots.
Fast forward to roughly 2020, when descendant Cy Radford found a bottle of original Kentucky Par and decided to revive the brand. Together with some other associates, Radford sourced twelve year old Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, blended it together, and bottled it under the original name with the original 1930’s branding.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
There’s a lot of history behind this brand, but the reality is that this is a sourced bourbon of relatively unknown provenance packaged and sold under a shiny label.
As a bourbon whiskey, this starts with a mash bill that contains at least 51% corn — specifically, this bottle uses a mixture of 74% corn, 18% rye, and 8% malted barley. Those grains are cooked and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid that is then distilled into raw whiskey within the state of Kentucky (as a “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” should).
After distillation, the whiskey is placed into charred new oak barrels for a period of no less than two years — in fact, this whiskey stays in the barrel a full twelve years. That number is significant, as it was the same maturation period for the 1933 first issue of this whiskey placed in barrels at the start of prohibition and only removed twelve years later when it ended.
I generally like traditional designs for whiskey bottles, especially when there’s a history involved. Therefore, I appreciate the use of the original label in this case… but it also gives me some concern.
The only tie between the contents of this bottle and the brand on the label is the bloodline of the owner. Nothing else exists to tie these two different companies together, since the original Kentucky Par distillery no longer seems to exist. That makes the label a bit disingenuous in my opinion. The date 1933 is stamped prominently in gold metallic lettering on the front, which would seem to indicate that the distillery or the process can tie its history back to that date. But, in reality, this is a brand new company that just seems to be riding on the coattails of an older institution.
Otherwise, I think the branding is pretty on point here. The retro 1930’s label design is cool, and makes sense in this context. The label doesn’t have much ornamentation, but it also doesn’t take up the entire front of the bottle. There’s plenty of space to see the liquid inside, which I appreciate.
As for the bottle, the design is something we’ve seen time and again and works well. There’s the cylindrical body, the rounded shoulder, the flare in the medium length neck, and the wood and cork stopper — all good components that are quality designs, if a bit unoriginal. But, then again, that’s probably intentional for an older brand like this.
The liquid in the glass is a bit darker than usual for a bourbon — probably closer to a deep rust than a bright amber, thanks to all that time spent in a barrel. The aroma is also well saturated here, starting with some good brown sugar and vanilla notes, adding a bit of cherry, orange citrus, cedar wood, and then a tiny bit of dried apricots.
For a twelve year old 100 proof bourbon, though, you’d expect this to be a thick and powerful sip… but in fact, it is smooth, creamy, and just right in my opinion. The flavors start out with the standard bourbon characteristics of brown sugar, vanilla, and toffee caramel, but there’s also a touch of dark chocolate that gets added to the mix for some depth and character.
As the flavor develops, there’s a bit more fruit that comes into the mix — specifically, some orange citrus and banana with just a bit of malty bread-like flavors accompanying them. That lasts into the finish, when some black pepper spice from the rye content makes an appearance alongside a flash of apple.
Adding some ice to the glass makes this smell much sweeter, with more of the brown sugar being expressed than we saw before.
In terms of the impact to the flavor, it seems like this has compacted the flavors and rearranged them a bit. Instead of a slow progression and evolution of flavors, they all come together at once, with the brown sugar leading the way and followed closely by the vanilla and dark chocolate (albeit much reduced in saturation). The fruit is significantly toned down, with the orange citrus and apple really only appearing near the finish for a brief period before the brown sugar and vanilla come back.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
What makes this a really great old fashioned (which it is, by the way) is the balance that the whiskey provides to the bitters. There’s just enough sweetness and brightness in the brown sugar to counteract the bitterness, but there’s also enough of that dark chocolate note to provide a bit of depth and richness to the herbal components. There’s balance from all sides here making for something that is absolutely delicious.
I don’t even think it needs sugar. Or the orange garnish. Just splash some ice and bitters in the glass and you are good to go.
What we have here is an absolutely perfect Kentucky Mule.
Up front, I’m looking for a balance of flavors between the bourbon and the ginger beer — and that’s exactly what I’m getting. The sweetness of that brown sugar note is deliciously balanced by the bright ginger beer, and there’s even some of that dark chocolate sneaking into the mix to provide a bit of depth to the flavor.
On the finish, I’m looking for a bit of complexity to the texture. A mediocre mule will finish flatly, but here there’s that black pepper spice and apple flavor from the rye content that makes an appearance. The combination adds a bit of kick to the end and leaves you with this pleasant, tasty fizzy effect.
I can see why a bourbon like this would go well with a soft drink like Kentucky Parfay.
This is, without a doubt, a delicious bourbon. There are some great flavors in here that are well executed, and I really appreciate how well this stands up in a cocktail.
Where this starts to stumble a bit is the price tag. If this were somewhere in the $60 range, it would be batting well above average. But at the current market price ($125ish), there just isn’t enough substance to keep those extra stars on the rating. Add in the shaky provenance and we’ve got something that, while worth the price, is only hitting middle-of-the-road on my list of recommendations.
|Kentucky Par 12 Year|
Produced By: Kentucky ParProduction Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: 12 Years
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $129.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A delicious bourbon that is wrapped in history, but from a brand new distillery and for quite a high price tag.