I’ve written here before about Castle & Key, the Frankfort, Ky., distillery that has risen from the ruins of the legendary Old Taylor Distillery after renovating many of the old structures on the huge campus. While hanging onto the history of the famous former distillery (some of the structures date back to the 1800s), Castle & Key hasn’t been afraid to do things a little differently, and I think it’s allowed them to occupy a unique space in the whiskey biz.
The latest release from Castle & Key that I have enjoyed is a little hard to find, but it’s worth the hunt, or even the trip to Frankfort to tour the lovely grounds and buy it at the bottle shop. Small Batch Wheated Bourbon Whiskey is a very different product for the distillery that is best known for their bourbon, gin and vodka.
Wheated bourbons are quite sought-after for their novelty and softer feel on the palate — unlike most traditional bourbons that use rye as the third grain besides the corn (which is required to be at least 50 percent of the recipe to qualify as bourbon) and malted barley (which provide the enzymes necessary to kickstart the yeast and the process of fermentation). Some quite famous bourbons are “wheaters,” including Marker’s Mark, Weller and the white whale of bourbon collectors, Pappy Van Winkle.
Castle & Key’s wheated whiskey features a mash bill of 73 percent white corn, 17 percent malted barley and 10 percent wheat. Created from a batch of just 49 barrels, the blend was aged for at least five years in new charred-oak barrels and bottled at 100 proof. On the nose, the blend of grains and barrels offers some of the characteristics you would expect from the individual components. The corn contributes a nice sweet muffin (I refuse to call it cornbread since it’s sweet!) aroma, and the relatively high barley content offers a malt chocolate note. The wheat tempers the sweeter notes to flatten out the curve of the slightly elevated alcohol level.
On the tongue, the sweet cookie and malt characters definitely come through along with a nice menthol bite, kind of like chasing a Trefoil with a Thin Mint, which I definitely recommend trying. The finish is short, but not abrupt, just pleasantly smooth as the flavors meld into a satisfying mélange of sweetness, corn and Wheat Thins. It’s a delightful change of pace to the vanilla and caramel whiskeys that dominate the market, so if you’re looking for something different, start hunting or head north to Kentucky!
Whiskey fans may recall that when Castle & Key first opened, they shone a bright spotlight on their initial distiller and blender Marianne Eaves, who first burst onto the spirits scene as a protégé to noted Woodford Reserve distiller, Chris Morris. She is, indeed, a very talented taster and blender, but she moved on to other projects not too long after Castle & Key released their first products. You may remember reading here about her recent work with Sweetens Cove.
After Eaves’ departure, Castle & Key leaned into their blending expertise more than emphasizing the role of the distiller. As a young spirits company, this makes good sense because they haven’t had the time to build up deep reserves of aged whiskey, so blending the barrels in new and creative ways is a great way to stand out until the spirits have enough time in oak to make them a little easier to blend.
At Castle & Key, they tend to dump much smaller batches of barrels, sometimes fewer than 50 in a run. That’s like an hour’s production at a large distillery. The talented tasters and blenders at Castle & Key organize their barrels into what they call “pods” that exhibit similar consistent flavor characteristics that can be combined to create a desired final product. Even with this sort of quality control, they acknowledge, and actually revel in the fact, that there can be nuanced changes in a product from batch to batch.
Here’s a little bit of interesting info I got on a recent visit to the distillery. For some of their smaller batch products, Castle & Key may actually create and release three different versions of a spirit over the course of a year, knowing full well that they probably won’t taste exactly the same. If you look at the label on the attractive Castle & Key bottle, there will be a batch number on the back of the packaging. Since you want every new release to be a success and attract a devoted following, Batch 1 is the closest to what the blenders feel will best represent the product in a way that will appeal to a larger audience.
This is great, but the real treats might be the second and third batches, where the blenders dig a little deeper into the rickhouses to create their pods. These products might be a little more interesting and a tad more challenging, but in a good way. I always try to seek out those higher numbers when I can, but I haven’t really been disappointed by any bottle of Castle & Key that I’ve tried. Just a little heads-up that you might want to check the back of the bottle, too.