The origins of the Kentucky Peerless brand dates back to 1881 when business associates Elijah W. Worsham and Capt. J.B. Johnston built the E.W. Worsham & Co Distillery in Henderson, KY, and started producing whiskey under the Peerless brand name. With production only peaking at around 300-400 barrels per year, the distillery was sold within a decade to local businessman Henry Kraver after falling into financial difficulties following the death of co-founder Elijah Worsham. Wasting no time, Kraver invested heavily in new machinery to expand capacity and added new warehouses, boosting production from 8 to 200 barrels per week, and having his new warehouses ready for federal bonding when the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 came into effect. Over the decades that followed, the distillery grew to be one of the largest distilleries in the state (and the world) and so Kraver decided to incorporate it as ‘the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company’ in 1907. By 1917 production peaked at 23,000 barrels annually with roughly 63,000 barrels in warehouses. With the advent of the Great War, operations took an unexpected turn with the distillery halting production for the first time in over 35 years. Nationwide Prohibition soon followed the end of the war and with it Kentucky Peerless suffered the fate of many other distilleries at the time and shut operations indefinitely. Whilst his whiskey was being prescribed medicinally throughout Prohibition, Kraver relied on other successful business ventures but a tragic fall, and his subsequent death due to complications resulted in the Peerless brand going dormant for 76 years.
In 2014, following this 76-year hiatus, Kraver’s great- and great-great- grandsons came together with the dream of reviving and restoring their family’s once-famous brand and legacy in Louisville, KY. The father and son team, Corky and Carson Taylor, built their state-of-the -art craft distillery from the ground up, obtained the original Distilled Spirits Plant number from the 1800s, and filled the first barrel of Kentucky Peerless whiskey since Prohibition in March 2015, starting a new chapter in the Peerless legacy.
Today, the brand is thriving under the watchful eye of Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn along with the Taylors. Kentucky Peerless has once again gained international renown for the quality of their whiskies, first releasing a 2 year old barrel-proof straight rye whiskey in 2107, and recently their first batch of 4 year old barrel-proof straight bourbon, both to massive critical acclaim. Their dedication to quality at every point of the distillation and ageing process combined with low barrel entry proof, very small batches of only 6 barrels, barrels sourced from a small local cooperage, and exclusive use of a sweet mash process (instead of the commonly used sour mash process) has set them apart from most of the other craft and larger scale distilleries in the US.
Released in 2017, Kentucky Peerless small batch rye saw the first release of a whiskey distilled under the Peerless label since Prohibition. Aged 2 years and bottled at barrel proof without chill filtration, the 6 barrel micro-mingling of straight rye whiskies came from stocks produced by Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn during the early days of the Louisville distillery in 2015. Almost as soon as it was released Peerless rye caught the attention of rye whiskey lovers all over the world and the positive reviews and accolades soon started rolling in. In 2018 Peerless released the next year up with batches of rye carrying a 3 year age statement appearing on shelves and following the same approach as previous releases – barrel proof, NCF, rye whiskey from 6 barrels married together for their complimentary flavour profiles.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the 3 year old small batch which is available in select markets and the distillery itself. When I tried it on a distillery tour in February I remember thinking “I need to get my hands on a bottle!” so let’s see if I was right to do so.
Name: Peerless Small Batch Rye (Batch 151125107)
Age: 3 y.o.
Proof: 108.4 proof (54.2% abv)
Type: Kentucky straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: Undisclosed (minimum 51% rye)
Producer: Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company
Nose: The nose opens sweet with toasted oak, caramel, spicy young rye, vanilla, faint green apples, warm earthy baking spices, red fruit, dark chocolate, and barrel smoke emerge to give a complex and balanced nose.
Palate: The palate opens viscous with tart green apples caramelised in brown sugar and earthy baking spices, followed by a hefty kick of dry and young rye spice, dark chocolate, and slightly tannic charred oak.
Finish: The finish opens with a flash of baking spice and rye heat before dark chocolate and faint red fruit emerge to accompany the lingering aftertaste of herbaceous charred oak and warm earthy rye.
Wow! Wait, how old is this again?
This is already a really good craft rye whiskey even before you factor in that it is only 3 years old. It’s bold, spicy, complex, and packed with so many delicious rye-forward flavours that it doesn’t taste like a typical young craft rye whiskey at all. Instead, whereas many other young craft ryes tend to be bold flavoured with no end of herbaceous rye and young oak notes, this rye is already at a stage of maturity where it’s starting to trade some of its young grain and new oak notes for deep caramel, warm baking spices, and a hint of toasted oak. Add a great balance between the dominant flavours and its deep complexity of flavours to the mix, and you could have easily fooled me by claiming this as a 4 or 5 year old craft rye.
Pinpointing the exact source of its success, however, proves a bit more challenging when you consider all the factors that have gone into making it great. Is it the strict adherence to a sweet mash process? Is it the very low barrel-entry proof of 107? Is it the recipe? Is it the quality of the barrels? Is it the state of the art production machinery, or the skill of the Master Distiller? Honestly, it could be any or all of these things and more but one thing is very clear, this tastes better than any other barrel proof 3 year old craft rye whiskey that I’ve tried to date. There’s no dominating herbaceous notes (looking at you 3 year old Willett rye), there’s only a touch of young rye and ‘green’ oak, and the mouth-feel is incredible.
Despite all this, the many awards, and great reviews, one criticism I’ve seen repeatedly levelled at Peerless is that their whiskey is too expensive for what it is. At a recommended retail price of around $90 many have claimed that charging this price for a very young whiskey is a bit steep. This is a fair accusation, considering the rising prices of whiskey across the board (especially craft whiskey), but this time I feel that there may be more to it than meets the eye so hopefully I can provide some insight into this. From Peerless’ perspective the higher-than-average price of their whiskey is as a result of several important factors.
- First, Peerless make all their own whiskey on a small craft scale using a sweet mash process for its superior flavours and quality. However, using sweet mash is an expensive process requiring fresh grains, fresh 1st gen. yeast for each fermentation, and a costly steam cleaning of all relevant equipment post-production.
- Second, they use a low barrel entry proof of 107 proof. With the new-make coming off the still at approx 131 proof barrelling at 107 proof means that they use approx 17% more barrels and we all know that barrels are one of the largest expenses in any distillery.
- Third, by maintaining strict quality and flavour controls at every step of production their whiskey requires more man hours and expensive state-of-the-art equipment to produce.
- Fourth, they have been recognized as one of the top craft distilleries in the country and world as well as having won multiple awards and mentions from Rye and Bourbon experts such as Fred Minnick, Mike Veach and Dave Sweet.
So do all these reasons mean that they are justified in charging what they do? Well I think so, especially when you know you’re not getting ripped off for the sake of it: you’re paying for a carefully made true craft whiskey that’s being produced to the highest of quality standards.
This is honestly one of the best craft rye whiskies I’ve ever had and the quality will only keep improving which is the best part. Right now it’s delicious, but thinking ahead I’m truly excited for what’s to come as I personally believe Peerless rye could compete with some of the finest ryes out there. As we see older stocks released on an ongoing annual basis I would hypothesise that the demand for Peerless rye will only continue its upward trajectory as word of its quality continues to spread.
If you’re ever in the Louisville area I would highly recommend their distillery tour. I stopped in one afternoon on a whim and as just another visitor I was completely blown away by their people, their operation, and most importantly their whiskey. It would be hard for anyone that has visited there to argue that these guys don’t take their business very seriously and really push themselves to make the best quality product possible. The best part is they have specially selected single barrel rye whiskies available in the distillery as well as smaller 200ml bottles for those who are only looking for a taster.
Try or Buy?
Peerless is now available in 45 U.S. states, Canada, Australia and will soon be in the U.K. At $90 a bottle I’d happily buy knowing that I’m supporting a small-scale producer that are doing whatever it takes to craft exceptional whiskey. Still think the price is too high? With the increasing availability, getting your hands on a pour at your local well-stocked whiskey bar won’t be a problem soon and is something I would highly recommend.