Now for the moment some of us have been waiting for since first signs of re-awakening appeared at the abandoned Taylor distillery off McCracken Pike. After several years of patience, time, and change, the inaugural batches of Castle & Key’s bourbon have been delivered.
The first round of Restoration Rye went live in early 2021, and even through the peaks of the pandemic Castle & Key’s output remained level and consistent: putting out seasonal gins, several new batches of vodka and Restoration Rye, and a special whiskey paying homage to the role African Americans have played in American whiskey production. We were lucky enough to catch a very busy (but energetic) Blender/Brand Ambassador/Jack of All Trades Brett Connors from Castle and Key on the eve of the release of Bourbon Batch 1 for a quick catch-up and tasting session.
The inaugural iterations consist of two separate small batches at about 80 barrels and around 4 years of age. The mash bill is 73% white corn, 10% rye, and 17% malted barley blended by Jon Brown, director of Castle & Key’s Research & Development department, along with Connors. Enough prep, let’s get down to brass tacks.
Castle & Key Small Batch Bourbon Batch 1 – With notes of honeycomb, orange creamsicle, and light cereal grain on the nose, Batch 1 is immediately accessible. Traditional notes of oak and vanilla eventually make an appearance, but the sweetness keeps matters interesting. The palate retains a minor oak influence with honey, nutmeg, and a touch of rye towards the end. The real fun is during a long, lovely finish where the sweetness wanes and a strong wave of rye and pepper takes over for the duration. A straight drinker that could also do well in cocktails, but why spoil the ride? 98 proof. A- / $50
Castle & Key Small Batch Bourbon Batch 2 – Somehow, the second batch pivots into an entirely different experience. Muted and elegant, it bursts out of the gate with mint, baking spice, and just a touch of floral influence that is instantly likable and structured in the classic bourbon profile. The finish is rounder with a heavier wood inflection than the first offering, providing an interesting contrast that never dulls thanks to oak and spice hanging around for a generous amount of time. It is hard to pick one batch over the other, but this gets the nod by just a touch. This is one to pour into your favorite glass and invest a long amount of time enjoying. 99 proof. A / $50
Along with the two bourbons, I was lucky enough to try an advance of Castle & Key’s first Restoration Rye batch of 2022.
Castle & Key Restoration Rye Batch 1 (2022) – The nose is light but informed by an enticing blend of wintergreen and a slight touch of baked cinnamon apple. The sweetness fades slightly on the palate, with a balanced blend of apricot, chestnut honey, and brown sugar. The finish hints at the cinnamon apple note but remains on course with the palate and is a touch too short. Drew recently reviewed the final 2021 batch and gave it high praise. This carries on Restoration’s quality in fine form. 113 proof. A- / $45
Castle & Key is certainly having a moment, one which is most deserved and well-earned. All three releases are right in the center of the quality vs. price Venn diagram, pleasing to the eye in art-deco-inspired bottles, and most importantly: they are versatile and well-balanced. There are more releases on the way, and it will be interesting to see what happens as the distillery rolls out aged stock and further experiments with its blending process.