Originally established by Kentucky distiller Charles Mortimer Dedman in 1879, Kentucky Owl was a once-prosperous brand that faded out of memory after prohibition. In 2014 Dedman’s great-great-grandson Dixon Dedman and his business partners, Mark & Sherri Carter revived the brand, initially offering small-batch bottlings of barrel proof bourbon blended using stocks from undisclosed sources. The brand quickly earned a cult following for the quality of its releases and demand consistently outstripped supply. In 2017 it was announced that global ultra-premium spirits and wine company Stoli Group USA had acquired the brand from Dedman, taking over US distribution, sales, marketing, as well as the global rollout for the brand. With Stoli on board, the brand finally had the resources to go from a KY-only brand to a global brand with capital to secure future stocks, contract distillation, plans for a state-of-the-art $150m distillery, consistent releases, new styles of whiskey being available, and numerous limited releases.
Today the brand continues to grow domestically and internationally under the care of bourbon industry heavyweights such as Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame inductee John Rhea (KY Owl Master Blender) and David Mendell (President Of Kentucky Owl Real Estate Company). With work continuing on their own distillery the brand continues producing their own stocks in collaboration with the Bardstown Bourbon Co. with these stocks now finding their way into recent releases.
Released in time for St Patrick’s day 2022, Kentucky Owl St. Patrick’s Limited Edition Bourbon Whiskey is described as a “celebration of the ties that connect Irish and Kentucky whiskey-making”. Born from a collaboration between Kentucky Owl’s Master Blender John Rhea and Louise McGuane from J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey, this unique collaboration is best understood through the context of Louise’s role as a Whiskey Bonder.
Similar to Non-Distiller Producers in the US, Irish Whiskey Bonding is the practice of sourcing mature and new make spirit from Irish distilleries before maturing, blending, and bottling these as unique whiskeys. During the ‘golden age’ of Irish Whiskey in the 19th and 20th centuries, there were hundreds of distilleries operating in Ireland. Many did not have their own brands of whiskey at that time, instead producing new make whiskey spirit and selling this in bulk to Bonders for ageing, blending, and bottling. Bonders included a wide variety of people including publicans, grocers and mercantile owners. These Bonders would travel to their local distillery with their own barrels, fill these with the new make, and then cart them home for ageing ‘in Bond’ and blending. Bonders were abundant at the time and present in every town in Ireland, giving rise to many unique regional styles of Irish whiskey. Unfortunately, when the Irish Whiskey Industry collapsed in the 1930s the few remaining distilleries cut off supply to Bonders, leaving the Bonding tradition in Irish Whiskey to completely die out.
This changed in 2015 when drinks industry veteran Louise McGuane resurrected the lost art of Irish Whiskey Bonding and built a bonded Rackhouse on the McGuane Family Farm along the Wild Atlantic Way in County Clare. In the process of researching the methods of Irish Whiskey Bonding, they discovered that only 3 miles away from their farm lived a renowned whiskey bonder called J.J. Corry who sold his unique Malt Whiskey blend from his shop in the port town of Kilrush. Naming their brand in honour of J.J., the McGaunes and their dedicated team are in the process of building an unparalleled library of Irish Whiskey flavours, with spirit sourced from distilleries all over the island of Ireland and barrels from all over the world to achieve unique flavours not otherwise possible.
This ongoing search for unique barrels and a generations-old symbiotic between US and Irish whiskey producers is where the collaboration on this release was born. By law, US producers can only use a new charred barrel to produce straight bourbon and rye whiskies. This leaves a lot of barrels which are then mostly useless for US bourbon and rye producers but present a golden opportunity for Irish producers. Irish producers depend on an ongoing inflow of ex-bourbon casks to age Irish Whiskey in because these are some of the best for providing the subtle vanilla and caramel flavours that round out their delicate distillates. As a Bonder, Louise makes regular trips to Kentucky to source fresh and interesting casks to age her sourced distillate in and then create her library of flavours. To do this she tastes a variety of whiskies and mashbills from distilleries all over the US to find the particular barrel flavours she wants. Once found, these casks are purchased, eventually emptied, and get evaluated and patched up by her cooperage partner in the US, before being shipped to Ireland for filling with the distillate of her choice.
When Covid-19 hit these trips to the US suddenly stopped and with that went Louise’s ability to taste casks samples. This meant samples had to come to her, and it was during this period that an idea was born. Kentucky Owl approached Louise and asked if she wanted to not just buy empty casks from them but also do an exclusive blend of straight bourbon from their stocks. To achieve this, Louise was sent samples from Kentucky Owl’s stocks by Master Blender John Rhea ranging from 4 to 12 years old. The goal was to create something unique that looks at bourbon through the eyes of an experienced Blender and Bonder of Irish Whiskey who also knows her way around the flavours and ultimately what she wants from bourbon for her own whiskey in years to come. Rhea and McGuane blind-tasted individual cask samples, then again through multiple variations of blends. The result features a marriage of Kentucky straight bourbons aged 4 to 12 years old from a variety of Kentucky Producers. For the target profile, Louise focused on red fruit notes and ended up using a lot of wheated bourbon stocks. According to the press release:
“We tasted through the lens of bringing fruit-forward profiles that are desirable to us as Irish whiskey makers, but we also wanted something still representative of the Kentucky Owl style…this blend tastes like the Kentucky Owl products whiskey drinkers love, with an echo of big and bold juicy fruit flavors so familiar in Irish whiskey.”
Today we’ll be taking a look at this limited release which going by the label may even become an annual release which pushes the boundaries of what we understand bourbon and Irish whiskey profiles to be. Although I’m not particularly a massive fan of Irish whiskey’s lighter fruit and grain-forward profile I’ll be keeping an open mind when tasting this whiskey.
Name: Kentuck Owl St. Patrick’s Edition
Age: NAS (blend of stocks aged 4 to 12y.o.)
Proof: 100 Proof (50% ABV)
Type: Kentucky straight bourbon
Mashbill: Undisclosed (predominantly wheated-bourbon)
Producer: Kentucky Owl – Stoli Group, NY
Nose: The nose opens with earthy roasted nuts, warm baking spices, dark chocolate, a touch of red fruit, vanilla, and light buttery caramel. Nosing deeper the caramel becomes darker, the vanilla thicker, and the warmth of the spices shines through alongside an edge of ethanol.
Palate: The palate opens viscous with buttery caramel followed by peppery earthy spice, bright red fruit, thick vanilla, and charred herbaceous oak. As you continue to chew the earthy spice fades giving more concentrated red fruit notes, tannic herbaceous oak notes, and dry cacao notes.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering tannic spice, herbaceous oak, dark chocolate, and dried red fruit, leading into an aftertaste of peppery spice and charred herbaceous oak.
This bourbon has a lot of moving parts but one thing I can say about it is that it’s delicious! When I read about this being an American whiskey blended through the eyes and palate of an Irish Whiskey blender I had my reservations because Irish Whiskey is not a style that does a lot for my palate. I am, however, overjoyed to report that despite this it’s still very enjoyable and delivers its flavours well whilst striking an fine balance between its younger and older elements. This kind of blending has become a mainstay in American whiskey with many NDPs trying to create something with the few barrels of mature stock they have. In this instance it hits the mark and gives a final product that brings the best of both sides of the coin together to give a wider spectrum of flavours.
This release has also garnered a lot of attention for its use of green on the label and its association with St. Patrick’s Day, however, my thoughts on this are:
- I think we can all agree St. Patrick’s Day is as a globally recognised day for celebrating Irishness, Irish culture, Irish history, and everyone’s connection to Ireland – aswell as being a day of heavy drinking by many. Given the recent global pandemic it’s also a celebration that like so many others was postponed for two years, making this a very import year for its big return.
- This release also celebrates Irishness and the historic link between Irish and US whiskey producers, even going as far as to hand over the reigns of a limited release to an established and talented Irish producer to create something that exemplifies and celebrates this.
- Put these two things together and it’s clear why you’d release this celebration of Irishness on the day designated expressly for this.
- Yes, the bright green on the label may be a bit much for some but given all the other instances of green we see on St. Patrick’s Day we can perhaps forgive KY Owl for this modest example – especially considering they didn’t go through the trouble of turning an entire river green!
Overall, it’s clear (to me, an Irishman living in Ireland) that KY Owl didn’t just release something green with St. Patrick’s Day slapped across the front and tried to shamelessly sell it as something Irish when in actual fact has nothing to do with Ireland or being Irish. Instead, they gave Louise full control over the creative process and forged a genuine authentic link between the Irish whiskey industry and this release. Louise, for her part, did an excellent job and created something that even an ardent bourbon-drinker like myself can enjoy and appreciate all the more for her vital role in creating it. From the label this is batch 1 so here’s hoping we get more releases within the same vein or maybe even different again in the future!
*As a side note, for those who think they should have included Irish whiskey in the final blend I personally would have no part in such an abomination and I’m sure Kentucky Owl wouldn’t either! Not only are these styles incompatible (bourbon’s flavour-heavy profile would no doubt overpower the more delicate Irish profile), but the result would be designated as an American whiskey with very little footing in terms of labelling and categorisation to convince drinkers that it is a quality product and not something entirely thrown together. Instead, give me a straight bourbon that’s as close to Ireland as you’re going to get without travelling across the water and if I want to add Irish whiskey to it I can do so in the privacy of my own home with the curtains closed (Saints preserve us!)
Try or Buy?
This had an MSRP of $135 which for something that’s unique and does so well in bringing the two worlds of Irish whisky and bourbon together feels like a fair price. That being said, this isn’t something anyone is going to buy on a whim and I’d definitely recommend you try this if you can before committing.
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