“The owl says: ‘Who?’” – Fisher Price See ‘n Say
“Who?” indeed, Brer Owl. As in, who distilled this whiskey? We’ll probably never know for sure, unless some loosened lips allow these tidbits to slip. The usual suspects naturally spring to mind. As you have guessed by now, this will be a review of sourced whiskey. Regular readers will know these sourcing arrangements are a personal bête noire of mine.
My aversion to sourced whiskey feels as much substantial as stylistic. On the former count: why would I want to pay a premium to a middleman, solely for the questionable value add of repackaging and remarketing a whiskey from a distillery whose products are already available to us? Addressing the latter: a shortage of purple prose is not a problem currently facing the whiskey industry. We’ve got stories and tales and legends and lies galore. What we don’t have is enough truth and transparency, and sourced whiskey is more often part of that problem than part of any solution thereto.
That said, there’s an allure to sourced whiskey. Maybe somebody got their hands on something really excellent? Maybe the whiskey will be so good that we’ll end up not giving a damn where it came from? Maybe it’s worth paying the premium to get access to something that is truly unique and, in the end, will justify the added expense? Maybe Jesus will come down from heaven and give me a solid gold Rolls-Royce?
Fantasies aside, the issue is that it’s very difficult to ascertain the probabilities of this type of payoff in advance. While the downsides to sourced whiskey are obvious a priori; the benefit is not certain until we’re able to open the bottles and taste the contents. Fortunately, based on the generosity of others, I am today able to do exactly that. I will be happy to report my findings to you in a few moments. First, though, I’ll provide a short introduction to the company that brought us these whiskeys.
Kentucky Owl (in its current incarnation) it was started by Dixon Dedman. Of course, the backstory involves a great-great-grandfather, a defunct family distillery, a mysterious warehouse fire, unsubstantiated rumors of involvement by Al Capone, and the phoenix-like resurgence of a brand trading on a resurrected name and someone else’s bourbon. Once again: I’m less interested in the former and more in the latter, as it’s what I’m actually tasting.
A problem with reviewing these Kentucky Owl whiskeys in particular (at least using the cost-sensitive Malt Scoring Bands) is the price, which is… hard to pin down. The company itself doesn’t provide any details about wholesale prices, nor does it disclose a suggested retail price for these releases. As a consequence, retailers have taken a liberal approach to interpreting fair value for these, playing on hype and perceived exclusivity in order to justify some price tags that are eye-watering, whether those tears be due to sorrow or laughter.
A perusal of the Instagram channels dedicated to ferreting out overpriced bourbon (I’m dismayed to report that these are not only extant but numerous and, unfortunately, necessary) reveals that retail pricing for Kentucky Owl is even more haphazardly schizophrenic than for other premium bourbons, if that can be fathomed.
For example: my local non-price-gouging liquor superstore sells batches #2 and #3 of the Kentucky Owl Rye for $190 and $180, respectively. However, these appear “in the wild” for anywhere from $150 to $400. The Bourbon is even worse (excluding the “Confiscated” expression): from a low of $280 to a high near $640, depending on the batch.
Setting aside the higher-than-average deviation from the mean, these prices (even at the low end) seem crazy to me on an absolute basis. If you asked me what I’d pay for an 11 year old rye from an undisclosed Kentucky distillery bottled at barrel proof, I’m not sure precisely what my answer would be, but it certainly wouldn’t be “nearly $200.” For comparison, Beam released a Basil Hayden 10-year-old straight rye for $70. Even adjusting for the lower proof (80) by, say, doubling the price would only bring you to $140, and that seems punchy.
Likewise the bourbon: the example I am tasting has an “average age of 8-11 years.” How an average can be a range will be a question for someone more adept at math than me. That aside, taking the lower end of the range: can you find an at-least-eight-year-old bourbon at barrel proof? You can, and I have. How much does one pay for this? $60, $70, $80. Certainly not $100, much less triple that amount.
It’s easy to imagine why someone would want to charge these prices for sourced bourbon and rye: because they can do so, I presume profitably. This was also apparent, seemingly, to Luxembourg’s S.P.I. Group (parent of Stoli Group, known for Stolichnaya vodka), which acquired Kentucky Owl in January 2017. S.P.I. shortly thereafter announced plans for a “Kentucky Owl Park” in Bardstown, including a $150 million distillery, though these plans seem to have hit a roadblock related to land acquisition. The opening of the distillery has been pushed back to 2022 (from 2019 originally); Mr. Dedman remains with Kentucky Owl currently as a Brand Ambassador and Master Blender.
Back to the owl’s initial hoot: who buys these? One would have to imagine someone who liked bourbon enough to pay $200+ for a bottle of it but who was either irresistibly curious or insufficiently attentive such that they did not care or not know that these are trading at well above what would be warranted, given comparable options. Unless… they’re ridiculously good? The bar has been set high here on the basis of price, and I’m going to be expecting something life changing as a payoff.
Before I tuck in, though: one “who” question that has a definite answer relates to how these whiskeys got into my hands. For that, I have Brian to thank; David Jennings also sent along a sample of the rye. Both their continued generosity with samples is appreciated in the utmost. With those thanks out of the way, I’m preparing to have my life changed. Seriously. Stop laughing.
First up, the Bourbon. This is Batch #6, which Kentucky Owl’s site informs us is comprised of “8 barrels reintroduced to charred new American white oak at 2-4 years old, average age 8-11 years.” 1,634 bottles were released from this batch, which comes to us at 111.2 proof (55.6% ABV). As noted above, prices for this are all over the map, but I’ll be using the low of $280 as a benchmark for scoring.
Kentucky Owl Bourbon Batch #6 – Review
Color: Medium-dark orange-cola with tawny glints.
On the nose: The initial impression is of a slightly musty woodiness, as of an old, dried out tree decaying on the forest floor. There’s a note of damp copper and some weak citrus fruit aromas. With more time in the glass, I perceive a subtle note of milk chocolate as well as a glass of iced tea with a lemon squeezed into it. The earthy scents return in the form of dusty clods of dry soil.
In the mouth: There’s more sharpness to the front of the palate, with a stern mineral note and some more acidic, sour citrus flavors. Broadening out somewhat at the middle of the palate, there’s a roundly woody flavor in the center of the tongue that is by far the best part of this whiskey. Another turn toward citrus marks the transition to the finish where suddenly this fades altogether. The whiskey disappears in near silence, leaving a residual taste of salted nuts and some drying limestone flavors as a remnant of its presence.
I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that this came from Heaven Hill, particularly from the 78% corn, 10% rye, 13% barley mash bill. With that in mind, what should $200 or $300 worth of Heaven Hill whiskey taste like? Well, we have a benchmark in the form of Evan Williams 23 Years Old, which has elements in common with this plus many more besides.
I like Heaven Hill bourbon, and this is a pretty decent one. I’d say it’s worth perhaps $60, maybe $80 at a stretch. As noted above, though you’d expect to pay roughly quadruple that in order to get your hands on this. Unfortunately, that makes this an easy whiskey to pass on, in my opinion.
We’ve now got the rye to consider. I am once again expecting this to be a showstopper in light of the price, but also because it has garnered high praise from people I respect and trust. In fact, any disparagement of Kentucky Owl (by myself or others) has not infrequently been met with “Yeah, but, the first batch of the rye…”
As for the particulars: this is Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, aged 11 years. It has been bottled at 110.6 proof (55.3% ABV). As noted above, the subsequent batches are on store shelves for $170-180, so I’ll score this as though I paid $175 for it.
Kentucky Owl Rye Batch #1 – Review
Color: Medium chestnut with copper accents.
On the nose: This jumps out of the glass immediately in a cloud of gorgeously fruity and creamy notes. There are ample exotic aromas of mangoes, key lime, and peaches, all wrapped up in a buttery blanket of vanilla cream frosting. It’s so sumptuous and soft for a rye, though the more plump and pulchritudinous smells are balanced by some underlying vegetal and mineral scents. There’s a subtly citric nip interpreted through a sweet lens, in the manner of Squirt soda pop. As with my favorite whiskeys, I am torn between nosing this endlessly and wanting to get straight to tasting it.
In the mouth: A kiss of lime greets the lips and tongue as this enters. The front of the palate is all stone, to a mouth-puckering extent. This moves into the airy sugary flavor of pavlova at the middle of the tongue. That light sweetness makes way for more classic rye notes of aloe vera as this proceeds deeper toward the throat. There’s a lingering sour note that harmonizes well with a rich and creamy texture which slowly coats the inside of the mouth. For the finish, this has the heat of black peppercorns creating a tingling sensation on the tongue and lips.
Excellent rye whiskey, but then again it would have to have been for the price. The aromatics are superlative in terms of both their intensity and diversity. The palate is comparatively straightforward and could have done with some more of the generous fruitiness of the nose, but texturally this evolves in surprising ways that hold my interest as I continue to sip this slowly.
I re-tasted a known Barton 1792 rye following this dram – the E.H. Taylor Rye, to be precise – and the resemblance was uncanny. Again, based on prior experience, I’d be willing to wager that I know where this came from.
Offered the chance to buy a bottle at $175, I’d frankly be torn. With the exception of the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye and some of the more outlandishly priced expressions from WhistlePig, this is probably the most you’d ever think of spending on a bottle of rye. While it’s very good whiskey, it’s also got some blockbuster competition at this price point, with the further disadvantage that we know nothing about the particulars here. In total, I’d probably pass on this one as well, albeit with a rueful glance back over my shoulder.
You’ll be shocked to learn that the Lamb of God has yet to arrive with the keys to my Rolls, and that at least one of these whiskeys was transparently poor value for money (which is about the only transparent thing happening with Kentucky Owl). The best I can say for the bourbon is that it was not actively bad, in the sense of smelling or tasting disgusting or awkward. However, it fell well short of justifying its super premium price tag, especially as it so obviously came from a distillery that offers us some nearly unbeatable values in bourbon, and I docked it several points accordingly.
As noted above, I struggled more with the rye. The pleasure of drinking it was outweighed by the pain of the price tag, which in the end wasn’t fully justified by the quality of the whiskey. Hence one point off, to put a score on it that would indicate to you that I wouldn’t recommend a purchase.
Where Kentucky Owl flies from here is in the hands of its new overlords. However, those of you as wise as the brand’s eponymous raptor will now know that you can get the same or better experience for less money. Rather than fretting that you’re missing something if you haven’t tried Kentucky Owl, I can confidently advise you not to give a hoot.
Images kindly provided by Kentucky Owl.