[The Bourbon Review] Kentucky Senator – A Bourbon that Gets Our Vote

January 19, 2024

from The Bourbon Review

Kentucky is common word on Bourbon labels – you’ll find it as often as “Old” or “Straight,” but some feel the statehood should command a bit more respect. Part of this is due to the dozens of chapters American whiskey history that were written in Kentucky. Part of that respect, however, is in part due to Damon Thayer.

Thayer’s interest in bourbon began as a simple story of politics. A champion of industry and a Kentucky state senator, Thayer sought in his early terms to ensure that all of Kentucky’s core businesses – bourbon and horse racing – were able to flourish without government interference.

“I’ve always been in the business of tearing down artificial barriers to free enterprise,” says Thayer.

And the story of government interference in bourbon is long. Even in bourbon’s home state, there’s a history of restrictive rules beginning before Prohibition that still stretches into today. A mere five years ago, visitors couldn’t purchase a cocktail at a distillery, or buy a rare bottle without getting lucky to find it at a retailer.

As Thayer and the rest of the Kentucky legislature have worked to change these constricting laws, they’ve opened the door to a whole new world of bourbon tourism. Restaurants can now pour rare vintage bottles purchased from collectors, bourbon lovers who make the pilgrimage to distilleries can both enjoy a drink and buy a bottle, and (most recently) distilleries can even open off site satellite tasting rooms, to give even more people a chance to try their rare products.

Best of all for consumers, a huge variety of new bourbon labels is showing up on their shelves. Unique blends and finishes, proofing and aging that pushes the envelope, and more have popped up in the past ten years – and one of those new labels is owned by Thayer himself.

Thayer admits that despite his moving to the Bourbon State in 1992, he didn’t know much about bourbon until a few years into his forties.

“Actually,” he laughs, “I barely drank bourbon until after my divorce.”

So with the help of his friend Andre Regard, an equine attorney descended from Basil Hayden, the two set out to make their own bourbon.

Why Kentucky Means More

While the brand is currently sourcing all their liquid, it is laws laid down with Thayer’s help that will continue to enforce their quality. In an age of popup brands sourcing whiskey of varying quality from all across the world, Kentucky Senator is going to be tied to a tighter standard. While we’ve loved a range of releases from both distilleries, you won’t find any Dickel or MGP in his blends – just Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

“If the name includes Kentucky, the bourbon in the bottle has to be from Kentucky,” explains Thayer. So old school bottom shelf brands like Kentucky Gentleman, revived brands like Brown-Forman’s King of Kentucky, and Thayer’s own brand Kentucky Senator will always have one thing in common – the whiskey inside is legally required to have been distilled and aged in Kentucky.

And to double down on the Kentucky connection, Thayer and Regard are naming each annual small batch release after a U.S. Senator from Kentucky. (As a side note, history buffs should visit for deep dives into the namesakes of these bourbons – they’re both fascinating and entertaining.)

The first release of Kentucky Senator was named for Alben W. Barkley, a senator from Kentucky who eventually served as Vice President under President Truman. It hit shelves in 2020, coming in big and bold at 15 years and 107 proof with notes of dark chocolate, peanut brittle, and a finish of charred oak. While Thayer and his partner, lawyer Andre Regard, can’t reveal their source, we do know it came from a heritage distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky.

The following releases, all coming from a different but equally respected Bardstown distillery, will share DNA. After their first launch sold out in 2020, Thayer and his partners worked to source barrels that they plan to use for a total of four years’ worth of releases – one each year as the barrels age.

So in 2021, Kentucky Senator released the first expression from this set of barrels – a six year, 107 proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon named for William J. Deboe, the first ever Republican senator from Kentucky. More balanced and less bold than the initial 15 year release, we found notes of strawberry syrup, toasted walnuts, and caramel. CSPAN fans will find the inside joke in the age statement and name – Deboe was a one term Senator, serving for just six years.

As this set of barrels continues to age, Kentucky Senator released their third expression in summer 2022 – a seven year, 107 proof Kentucky Bourbon named for one of the most influential names in the bourbon world, even today. John G. Carlisle, the leader of the “Bourbon Democrats,” famously helped pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Before the FDA approved the ingredients in your skin care, candy, and cold medication, Carlisle helped create laws to ensure pure and safe whiskey.

The Bottled-in-Bond Act lays out a series of regulations that go above and beyond for bourbon makers. In short, its an agreement to craft bourbon to a standardized 100 proof, a minimum four-year age, and a uniformity in age and recipe within the bottle that distillers can make with the government in exchange for tax breaks. As the sponsoring senator for this landmark legislation and future Secretary of the Treasury for Grover Cleveland, Carlisle’s name and portrait appeared on the tax stamps atop bottled-in-bond whiskeys for decades.

In 2023, the eight-year expression from this same family of barrels debuted with tremendous success, ranking 58 in Fred Minnick’s “Top 100 Bourbons of The Year” list. They threw an homage event in Somerset, KY, hometown of the release’s namesake, John Sherman Cooper.  In Northern Kentucky’s Covington, home of John G. Carlisle, they had an official launch party at Bourbon renowned Smoke Justis.

The following images are of the Liquor Barn Private Barrel Selection “John Sherman Cooper” 8 year 107 Proof. All photo credit to Richie Wireman.

Middle: Bourbon Review’s Seth Thompson. Right: Brad Williams, Liquor Barn Bourbon guru and VP of Purchasing

Mark Rucker of “The Bourbon Life”.

Looking at the future…

In 2024 we can expect the nine year expression and the flavor nuances that accompany a full year of aging. And following that? The brand is already working with some big names in bourbon to lay down barrels for their next releases. Thayer is forecasting for the future with mentions of new make from Green River Distillery in Owensboro that’s aging as we speak – but really, his focus isn’t the distillery name, only the distillery’s quality.

“We want to make these collectible bottles with both good whiskey and a good story,” says Thayer.

The key transition being a pivot from NDP (Non Distilling Producer) to Contract Distilling.  The latter being a more hands on approach in working with a producing distillery in making the distillate, which in turn goes into the barrel.  Thayer notes a Contract Distilling relationship is in the works with Frankfort, KY based Whiskey Thief Distilling.  He noted having different mash bills to go with different Senator releases.

The dynamic duo, Thayer and Regard, have already embarked on an exhilarating whiskey immersed journey.  It will be exciting to see how the next chapters unfold for these Bourbon State mavericks and their passion for all things Kentucky.

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