Whiskey Review: Kentucky Tavern Special Reserve Bourbon Whiskey

I’ve been drinking a lot of really good whiskey lately… which unfortunately means I’m overdue for another bottom shelf whiskey selection. Over my years reviewing whiskey, I’ve found some suprisingly good stuff down here in the bargain bin, though, so I’m hoping that Kentucky Tavern will be another diamond in the rough. Fingers crossed…


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History

Richard Monarch was the youngest of seven, born in 1838 to Thomas and Susan Monarch. The family had a 150 acre plot in Kentucky and, in his early years, Richard worked as a farmhand for local farmers. Eventually, he tried his hand at tobacco farming until his oldest brother opened the Eagle Distillery in 1860 — at which point, he decided that he wanted to give the business a try and partnered with another brother, Daniel, to scrounge up enough funds to open their own distillery — the D. Monarch & Brother Distillery.

This family businesses would do extremely well, starting from a small scale production facility and building it into a distilling empire. Richard married Mary Elizabeth “Bettie” England on December 3, 1873, but the couple had no children and chose instead to continue investing their profits into the business. His business partner/ brother Daniel died two years later in 1875, and Richard briefly renamed the distillery to the R. Monarch Distillery until he convinced two of his best customers to form a partnership and invest alongside him as the R. Monarch & Co., Kentucky Standard Distilling Company.

That partnership would turn out to be a bad idea, though — the wife of one of the partners sued Richard, claiming that he had defrauded them, hid profits, and had even bought a steamboat to keep their profits from them. The story was sensational and consistently made the national headlines, but in the end the judge cleared Richard of all wrongdoing. Richard did in fact buy a steamboat, by the way — the Edna Adams, which unfortunately was destroyed in a fire in 1889.

The next year, in 1890, his brother who had originally inspired him to start his own distillery passed away, and Richard purchased the Eagle Distillery. This group of distilleries would produce whiskey under the brand names R. Monarch, Kentucky Club, Doherty Short Horn, and Kentucky Tavern.

The next eight years would see a massive over-production of whiskey and, when the bubble burst in 1898, the lack of demand forced the distillery into bankruptcy. Richard retreated back to his family farm, and while he would briefly open a new distillery in 1907 — but it would only last six years before it too was forced to close. Richard died only a few years later.

Back in 1898, though, the R. Monarch & Co., Kentucky Standard Distilling Company had been purchased out of bankruptcy by James Thompson, who renamed it to the Glenmore Distillery. That company would register the Kentucky Tavern trademark and continue to operate it until the 1970s, when the whiskey bubble burst once more and the business was sold to United Distillers and then to the massive Sazerac company.

Sazerac continues to manufacture Kentucky Tavern to this day, producing the spirit at their Barton Distillery.

Product

There’s not a whole lot of information about where this whiskey comes from or what’s in it. This is marketed as “bourbon whiskey with natural flavors” so this whiskey has been given a lot of leeway as far as its true contents.

As a bourbon, we can assume that at least 51% of the grain bill for the base whiskey comes from corn — but as to what the remainder of the grain bill is… well, that’s a gigantic question mark. This whiskey is currently being manufactured at the Barton 1792 distillery, reportedly using the same wheat heavy grain bill that results in the much-sought-after Weller spirit but there’s no real confirmation of that. Once the spirit is produced, it would need to be aged in charred new oak barrels for a period of time — but since there’s no age statement here, we don’t know for certain how long it was aged.

Which brings us to the biggest of the question marks: the added natural flavors. That’s pretty the same description we see on flavored whiskey like a peanut butter whiskey, so this could be pretty much anything.

Packaging

As you might expect, there’s nothing special going on with the bottle here.

Overall, the shape is very rectangular with equal sides and rounded corners. The sides are flat until they reach the shoulder, where there’s a significant taper to the medium length neck. The whole thing is capped off with a plastic screw-on top.

The label is similarly uninteresting. Boring white background with a black and white drawing of a tavern on the front, and some slightly artistic lettering for the brand name. It’s a formula we see time and again, with no points for creativity here.

Neat

The aroma coming off this glass is definitely different from a normal bourbon, I suspect primarily due to the wheat. There’s still those usual caramel and vanilla notes, but they seem to be riding on a soft blanket of sourdough bread. I almost think I get a bit of honey as well.

In the mouth, the whiskey has a surprisingly heavy weight to it — likely thanks to the added flavoring. There’s no bite or bitterness to the spirit, but there is a slight hint of sweetness.

In terms of the flavors, the first thing that comes to mind is actually Nutella. That hazelnut flavor is most prominent in my mind, followed by some caramel and vanilla before a bit of that sourdough bread comes in on the finish for a smooth lingering aftertaste.

On Ice

Usually, the addition of a bit of ice tones down the rougher corners of a whiskey (unfortunately, though, at the expense of the more delicate flavors which so often become collateral damage). In this case, somehow the majority of flavors are almost completely gone.

All that’s left in the glass is a little bit of flavor as if someone spread a bit of honey on a piece of sourdough bread and wafted it in your general direction. Gone are the vanilla and caramel flavors, lost in the void. Its… bland.

Really doesn’t make me hopeful for the next couple of tests.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

A cocktail is all about balance. Not too bitter, not too sweet. If anything is off in either of those directions, then you probably aren’t coming back for another — or even finishing your existing drink.

In this case, I struggled to finish one drink. There’s no balance whatsoever. The flavors from the whiskey have been so diluted by the added ice that they are practically nonexistent, and the angostura bitters are left to run rampant over the rest of the flavor profile. It’s a drink so off balance that it looks like my bank account during my early 20’s.

Fizz (Mule)

I was really tempted to just call this a Moscow mule and move on, but that’s a bit unfair.

True, there isn’t much that the whiskey brings to the party. There’s no depth, no complexity, and no interesting textures added by the whiskey. But there is one thing that gets added to the mix, and that’s the sourdough bread note. It mixes with the ginger beer at the beginning of the sip to make something decidedly new… but then, once again, there’s no balance to the drink. It’s just one more layer of flavor that doesn’t really interact with the rest of the cocktail.


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Overall Rating

It isn’t terrible. It isn’t patently offensive. It doesn’t scorch my taste buds or make me wish I never took a single sip…

But it just isn’t very good.

Looking at the competition in this specific area of the market, there are better selections out there. Evan Williams Green Label is a fantastic example. For this whiskey, especially given the dubious manufacturing process, I’m going to pass.

Kentucky Tavern Special Reserve Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Kentucky Tavern
Owned By: Sazerac Company
Production Location: Kentucky, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $7.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 2/5
It’s certainly no diamond in the rough, but the best I can say is it isn’t as rough as some of the others I’ve tried.


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One comment

  1. This one was a real mystery for me. So, I contacted Sazerac and they told me that KTSR was “reformulated” to be smoother. My impression was similar to yours – a somewhat odd bourbon flavor and wondering what the added flavoring was. So I wrote it off as another classic old time brand that became a casualty of creative marketing. But then a short time later I was in a liquor store in nearby SE Indiana and spied a bottle of KT straight Kentucky bourbon which I promptly purchased for $10. When I later sampled it I found it had the classic bourbon flavor I remembered. So I again contacted Sazerac and was told that yes, the original straight bourbon was still available in some markets. Just wanted you to know this in case you want to give this classic bottom shelf brand with the awesome name another chance, assuming you’re in the right market.:)

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