Kentucky Peerless Single Barrel Rye Nickolls & Perks (UK) ‘The Merchant’s Cask’ Review

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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, standard size barrels sourced from the small local Kelvin cooperage (no micor barrels here), 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 May of 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. Riding this wave of roaring success, in November of 2017 Peerless went a step further and announced the launch of their Single Barrel Rye Programme. Also bottled NCF and at barrel proof Caleb Kilburn described the programme in the following way, “For me, the single-barrel program is about showcasing the three individual flavor pillars that go into making our flagship (rye product) — oak and pepper, fruit and floral, and caramel and vanilla…Each one creates a unique experience that represents the complexity of Peerless Rye Whiskey.”

In 2018 as Peerless released the next year up of small batches of rye carrying a 3 year age statement, the single barrel programme followed suit with both soon appearing on shelves and following the same approach as previous releases – barrel proof, NCF, rye whiskey from either 6 barrels married together for their complimentary flavour profiles, or a single barrel chosen for its unique showcasing of Peerless’ target flavours.

Today I’ll be taking a look at a bottling of Peerless single barrel rye whiskey which was hand-picked by 3rd generation family-run independent spirits and wine merchants Nickolls & Perks based outside Birmingham in the UK. Having recently launched into the UK, Peerless hit the ground running with two single barrels of their rye hitting the market simultaneously, ‘The Merchant’s Cask’ by N&P and ‘The Modjeska’ by private group the British Bourbon Society. When I tried 3 different single barrels on offer at the distillery tour in February last year I remember regretting that I didn’t pick up a bottle but now almost a year later I didn’t make the same mistake so let’s see if I was right to do so.

Vital Stats:

Name: Peerless Single Barrel Rye ‘The Merchant’s Cask’ (Batch R160307110 )
Age: 3 years 4 months old – Barrelled March 2016, Bottled July 2019
Proof: 108 proof (54% abv)
Type: Kentucky straight rye whiskey
Mashbill: Undisclosed (minimum 51% rye)
Producer: Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company
Website:  https://kentuckypeerless.com/whiskey/kentucky-peerless-rye/
Glassware: Glencairn glass

Review

Nose: The nose opens deep and complex with dark brown sugar bordering on molasses, earthy barrel char with a dash of warm toasted oak, dry rye grains, black pepper, stewed fed fruit, a touch of dried cherries, lingering baking spice, and ground cloves in the back.

Palate: The palate opens viscous with notes of deep thick caramel, followed quickly by sweet notes of warm toasted oak emerging alongside notes of red fruit covered in powdered sugar. These are then followed by a wave of peppery rye spice which gives a combination of young rye notes, herbaceous oak, and a bit of heat on the tongue. As you continue to chew the rye notes mellow and become more cereal-like, before a deep boozy cocktail cherry liqueur-esque note, and more toasted oak notes emerges. This sweet note combines with the earthier barrel notes of black coffee and earthy barrel spices to create a flavour profile that tastes similar to a well-made Manhattan cocktail.

Finish: The finish opens with lingering spice from the palate travelling down the throat and warming the chest. Once this fades there’s dark chocolate, burnt caramel, a touch of dried cherry, and tannic oak with an aftertaste of earthy coffee, oily rye, and slightly bitter herbaceous oak.

Overall

This is a big, bold, spicy rye that is crammed full of flavour and really showcases multiple elements from the three individual Peerless flavor pillars that go into making their flagship rye whiskey — oak and pepper, fruit and floral, and caramel and vanilla. It’s sweet and fruity, it’s peppery and oaky, and it has some seriously deep caramel from nose to finish. Of the three flavour pillars the most dominant for me was the influence from the oak and the fruit elements, particularly toasted oak and red fruit. From nose to aftertaste it is wood-heavy with the signature toast used in Peerless barrels really shining through and bolstering the flavour profile with warm and mellow toasted oak notes similar to something such as Michter’s Toasted Barrel Finished rye. Throughout tasting this I was acutely aware of the barrel guiding the experience with notes of toasted oak, cloves, herbaceous oak, coffee, and tannins all featuring across the board. These notes occurred alongside notes of red fruit dusted in powdered sugar and concentrated cherry notes which worked in tandem with the oak to give an intense but balanced flavour experience. Throughout all this the rye is still very much front and centre making its presence known via cereal notes and a wave of prickling spice on the palate.

What continues to surprise me about Peerless’ whiskies is how mature their whiskies taste for their relatively young age. This rye whiskey is a mere 3 years and 4 months old yet has the complexity and enjoyable intensity of rye whiskies twice its age. Pinpointing the exact source of its success, however, proves a bit more challenging when you consider all the unique 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 pine sap and ‘green’ oak notes (looking at you 3 year old Willett rye), the flavours are very enjoyable, there’s only a touch of young rye, and the mouth-feel is incredible.

It’s also great to see that Kentucky Peerless has finally landed into the UK market and has set the ball rolling fast with two single barrels. The guys over at Nickolls & Perks have chosen a fantastic barrel that really showcases some of the best of Peerless in my opinion. Hopefully, as distribution increases we’ll start seeing more of these barrels start to pop up around the UK, but for now we’re already spoiled with two.

Try or Buy?

This barrel pick is currently available from Nickolls & Perks on both their website and in store. At the new price of £75 I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to try a delicious craft rye whiskey that’s packed full.of flavour. At the price it’s selling for in the UK it also falls cheaper than the current US prices for Peerless picks so I wouldn’t expect the 210 or so bottles to last long – considering you’re getting a great pick at a very decent price.


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