Exploring the people, places, and pastimes that
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Three Men and a Bourbon:
Bringing Kentucky Par Back After 60 Years
If you’re a bourbon enthusiast, it’s hard to imagine a more tantalizing daydream: You’re having steaks and drinks with two friends you’ve known since high school and somebody says, “Hey we should go into the bourbon business.”
So you do.
In this case, the fantasy is real life.
Meet the three co-founders of
Cy Radford, David Gibbs, and Jim Thaler.
Their new baby is a 12-year, bottled in bond, high-end and high-rye, 100-proof bourbon
that’s been non-chill filtered.
Two years after that fateful dinner in Louisville, their bourbon is now on sale around Kentucky and will soon be coming to other states.
I met with the three bourgeoning bourboneers recently in the tasting room at Westport Whiskey and Wine in Louisville, where their new product was making its debut.
Talking with these three who have been friends for nearly five decades is like stepping onto the set of a Robert Altman movie (think M*A*S*H): overlapping dialogue, finishing each other sentences, high energy ribbing, and lots of laughs.
Gibbs: “There will be a lot of people who will drill down on what’s your bourbon like…”
Thaler: ”What about these tasting notes of cocoa, and charcoal, and rubber bands?”
Radford: ”You know what hint I taste? Bourbon.”
Radford says, “Our motto has jokingly been, ‘We’re three fat guys who want to have fun, make great bourbon, and hopefully make some money.’”
So, really, three regular guys can just decide to get into the bourbon business? How does that happen?
Kentucky Parfay becomes Kentucky Par
Let’s start with Cy, or rather C.S. Radford III. He’s the one with the bourbon bloodlines.
His grandparents, Beth Thomas Radford and C.S. Radford, Sr. (affectionately know as Ganny and Big Daddy) started the first iteration of Kentucky Par Bourbon in 1933. Once Prohibition ended, they opened up at First and Main on Whiskey Row in Louisville.
Big Daddy's Office
Why Kentucky Par? Go back one more Radford generation to Cy’s great grandfather W.A. Radford (affectionately known as Wawa) who bought the Kentucky Parfay Company before Prohibition. Kentucky Parfay made bottled soda.
“It was a soft drink, but it had alcohol in it, just like Coca Cola had cocaine,” Radford says. You can still buy Kentucky Parfay bottles on ebay and rare glass collector websites.
And yes, in true Kentucky fashion, it was spelled Parfay. (Remember, we’re the people who pronounce Versailles, “Versales.”)
The family accumulated a great stock of medicinal whiskey during Prohibition (“Evidently, they were a sickly family,” Radford says).
When the time of temperance ended, they sold it off and used some of the profits to start their own bourbon distillery. The new product could only be named Kentucky Par, Ganny said, in honor of Wawa’s not-so-soft drink Kentucky Parfay.
The next two generations of Radfords had a good run for nearly 25 years making and selling Kentucky Par, a high-quality bourbon using the tagline, “Remember, No Better Whiskey Can Be Made.”
But by the mid-to-late 1950’s, hard times hit the brown liquor business. Kentucky Par Bourbon went the way of many of its bourbon brethren and closed its doors.
Wouldn’t it be fun to bring that back?
After his father died in 2015, Cy Radford says, “I was cleaning out his office…and I came across a pint of the Kentucky Par and the tax stamp on it said it was put up in the fall of 1936.”
Radford brought the formerly dusty bottle to dinner to show to his friends. “And somebody said, wouldn’t it be fun to bring that back,” Radford remembers.
Someone asked what Radford’s father might think of the idea?
Radford says, “Dad is either going to say, “Boy, that’s a really good idea,’ or ‘You dumb son of a bitch, it took me all these years to get out of the whiskey business, why are you getting right back in?’”
But after that dinner two years ago, the trio decided they were all in. Radford says, “The thing we knew more than anything else, is that we didn’t know a lot.”
“There are a couple of choices if you get into the bourbon industry; you either buy yourself a distillery and then spend $20-30 million…or you go out and have to source (the bourbon),” says Thaler. “Kentucky Par came from a company…that sourced originally. They would buy from distillers that had high quality bourbon.”
Modern day sourcing is how you can take a 12-year old bourbon to market in two years. The Kentucky Par website says their bourbon “was crafted for us by one of Kentucky's oldest and most reputable distillers.”
But how does it taste compared to what was in that dusty pint bottle of the original Kentucky Par?
Thaler explains their process: “We took the bottle to (Master bourbon taster and brand expert) Peggy Noe Stevens. She tasted it, liked it, and came up with a very good idea of the mash bill. A higher rye bourbon. That’s one of the reasons we were two years in the making. She spent a year and half tasting bourbons…and got us in line with a bourbon that is going to be true to ours.”
This triggered a new riff on what it means for a distiller to source bourbon today.
Radford: “What we’re trying to do, as best we can, is be true to the roots of Kentucky Par. They rectified, we want to rectify. They had 100 proof, we want to have 100 proof.”
Gibbs: “I can only pick out a handful of bottles on those three shelves (in the tasting room) that didn’t start by sourcing.”
Thaler: “It (sourcing) is not a dirty word.”
Kentucky Par Barrel 1939
They tried bourbons from all over the country, but the label says Kentucky Par and that meant they really only had one choice: to choose a bourbon distilled in the Bluegrass.
Any chance they might oversell their supply? Gibbs isn’t worried: “There is a lot of very good bourbon in Kentucky.”
To prove that point, the guys offered samples to me and John, a friend of theirs who had wandered in early for the bottle signing they were about to do after our interview.
I asked John his thoughts: “I think it’s absolutely delicious. It drinks like an 80-proof bourbon. It doesn’t have any burn that you’d figure with the higher alcohol content. It’s got an excellent flavor.” I agreed, noting how smooth even the 127-proof barrel strength is.
Didn’t I mention that? That’s not for sale yet, but it’s coming.
The official Kentucky Par tasting notes:
NOSE: Caramel apples and oak with just a hint of rich vanilla.
TASTE: Caramel and green apples – almost like an apple Jolly Rancher candy with some baking spices and oak.
FINISH: Medium long with oak and baking spices.
People Who Really Give a Damn About Bourbon
As we tasted, there was a lot of talk about getting to know their customers and making sure Kentucky Par is the right bourbon for them. So who are the customers for this high-end bourbon?
Gibbs says, “I can give you the MBA technical answer, but it’s people who really give a damn about bourbon.”
Thaler added, “Basically what we’re looking for are bourbon explorers, people who want to try different things.”
It turns out that women aged 25-34 are some of Kentucky Par’s biggest fans, especially the high-octane barrel proof variety.
Now that they’ve come this far, what’s next for Kentucky Par? Radford says, “We sell. Sell, sell, sell.”
“We sell this batch. Get another batch. And we keep ramping up.” Gibbs added. “We are as down-to-earth as you can be. We are selling this stuff on the ground: one bar at a time, one tavern at a time, one liquor store at a time. Yes, we’ll have some events. But you’re more likely to see us with a table or two with people in various restaurants saying, ‘Try this. What do you think? What do we need to change?’”
The trio isn’t releasing any numbers from this first batch, but sales seem to be going pretty well.
In fact, there was a gentlemen visiting from Texas as I came into the store that day buying two cases of, I learned later, Kentucky Par.
“We walked into Kroger (grocery store) in Middletown today, “ Thaler says. “We were going to meet the manager and say, ‘here’s a taste.’ I said, ‘We’ve got Kentucky Par, I hope you’ll consider….he said, ‘You mean that? He points over his shoulder. He’d already bought a case.”
Heidelberg Distributing Company is handling the
distribution of Kentucky Par within the
Commonwealth of Kentucky.
The suggested retail price is $125 a bottle.
“You will see bourbons out there for $300.
They are remarkably similar in flavor profile,”
Gibbs says. “We’re not doing this to gouge
anyone, to make a quick buck and run.
We priced our stuff at a very reasonable margin.
We want people to enjoy Kentucky Par.”
I asked what effect the pandemic had on their bourbon launch. Gibbs says, “It pushed back bottling, but it’s almost driven the demand up because everyone’s been staying at home and anticipation of a new brand coming out has increased.” He noted that overall bourbon sales are up more than 300 percent nation wide from mid-March to mid-May.
In fact, the time at home allowed Thaler to add a personalized touch to their new product: he branded the t-top cork of each bottle with the KP Shield logo. (They have a Red Shield Society you can join for free to become a loyal ambassador of the new/old brand.)
Thaler says there are 3 bottles out there somewhere in Kentucky that are branded with Wawa, (in honor of W.A. Radford) in place of the KP Shield. Buy that one, call them up and you’ll win a prize. (He says the prize is a secret, but promises it will be worth your while.)
In the meantime, keep an eye out for Kentucky Par Bourbon to come to a liquor store, restaurant, or bar near you. Great bourbon is even better when you know the story behind it. And the 87-year story of Kentucky Par is just getting started.