The Story Behind the First Batch of W.H. McBrayer Kentucky Bourbon

WH McBrayer Bottle Batch One Signing

Almost a decade ago, W.G. (Bill) McBrayer IV learned about a long-lost, distant family member: a judge and well-respected Bourbon distiller who lived in Anderson County, Kentucky in the 1800s. That story led to a dream: to resurrect the Bourbon legacy of W.H. McBrayer using a family recipe and modern distilling techniques. In April of 2021, after years of research and dedication, the first results of that dream were shared with the world as Batch 1 of W.H. McBrayer Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. 

A lot has happened since Bill McBrayer IV and his dad/partner Bill McBrayer III first set out to bring The Judge’s award-winning spirit back to life. From selecting the ingredients to hand-labeling the very first bottle, it’s been a journey that turned out to be well worth the wait. 

Here are a few stories of how our first batch came to be. 

Chapter 1: The Judge and The Bloody Butcher Corn

Every whiskey starts with grain, and Batch 1 of W.H. McBrayer Kentucky Bourbon is no exception. Ours began with a friend of Bill McBrayer III  who was growing a special type of red corn called Bloody Butcher. It’s an heirloom variety that was grown in Kentucky in the 1800s, about the time that W.H. McBrayer, “The Judge”, was making his celebrated Bourbon.

We were looking for ways to resurrect his legacy and honor that history when we mentioned the Bloody Butcher corn to some friends in the Bourbon business. Very few other distillers were using Bloody Butcher corn at the time, and our friends thought it would make good Bourbon. They encouraged us to try it—so we did. Known for its vibrant red kernels and distinctively buttery flavor, this native grain played a key role in giving our Bourbon an instantly recognizable taste.

Chapter 2: The Smallest of Small Batches

Making Bourbon humbles you. You can start with the best ingredients and the best techniques, but you never really know if it’s going to be any good until you actually taste it. With that in mind, we knew we wanted to start small—really small. We looked into what the minimum batch size was that we could feasibly make. The answer was ten barrels and that’s what we made our first year.

The next year we bottled a bit of that first batch. We asked a retired Master Distiller from a local distillery to give it a taste and he told us it was some of the best one-year-old whiskey he’d ever tried. That was the confidence we needed and we started distilling a few more barrels each year as we waited for that first batch to hit the four year mark. Of course, we kept sampling it—and with each taste it got better and better.

Chapter 3: The Unopened Bottle

We knew we had something special in that first batch, but it took a long time to figure out the best way to bring it into the world. Back and forth: Bottled in Bond. Small batch. Single barrel. We wanted to do right by the spirit, which led us to a small batch approach; blending five barrels together to create a mix that was better than any single barrel in the batch.

We kept that first batch at barrel strength, which turned out to be 103.6 proof—pretty close to our 105 barrel entry proof, the way The Judge himself would have done it. It was a whiskey that tasted incredible right out of the barrel, and we didn’t want to change a thing about it.

After labeling the first bottle as Batch 1, Bottle 1, and seeing the culmination of eight years of hard work, history, thought, and time it has been decided that this bottle will remain unopened.

Chapter 4: The Resurrection of W.H. McBrayer

You never know how many bottles you’ll end up getting out of your barrels. For us, Batch 1 turned out to be 1,075 bottles taken from five of the 10 barrels that were originally filled. Once we launched the pre-order link to the Legacy Club, they sold out in days. Pre-orders were coming in so quickly that we had to turn them off to make sure we didn’t oversell the batch. When we relaunched, the site ended up crashing within an hour due to the number of people trying to order at one time.

Every single one of those 1,075 bottles is precious to us, and, we hope, to the people lucky enough to obtain them. So many Bourbon lovers missed out on that tiny five-barrel first batch—we still get emails every week from folks asking if they can get a bottle. You can’t rush good Bourbon, but there’s more coming in Batch 2.

Chapter 5: Living Up To A Legacy

The best part about launching Batch 1 was the response. We were honored to receive the overwhelming support of the McBrayer family, both here in Kentucky and around the world, who were proud to see the McBrayer name once again associated with great Kentucky Bourbon.

The Judge’s hometown city of Lawrenceburg has embraced the brand – from coverage in the local paper to events at the historical Ripy House. The local community has rallied around the revival of W.H. McBrayer Kentucky Bourbon, a name that’s been part of Anderson County for centuries.

Of course, the true test came from the Bourbon community. The responses we’ve received from our fellow Bourbon lovers, especially well-respected authorities like Michael Veach and The Mash and Drum, have been incredibly gratifying—a vote of confidence in our efforts to live up to The Judge’s legacy for making extraordinary spirits the right way.

Postscript: Batch 2

With Batch 1 in the hands and glasses of Bourbon lovers across the country, we’re looking ahead to what’s next: releasing Batch 2 of W.H. McBrayer Kentucky Bourbon in the spring of 2022. Just like Batch 1, we’re planning on letting the spirit be our guide as we find the best way to blend and bottle it. No one knows how many bottles we’ll end up with, or exactly what the proof will be. The whiskey will tell us. And we can’t wait to find out.