Taste Test: Kentucky Owl’s Newest Bourbon Lives Up to the Cult Whiskey’s Unicorn Status

Can a bourbon brand retain its cult status after a new master blender takes over, and is that status even merited in the first place? Fans of Kentucky Owl have been pondering these questions over the past few years, and the release of the new Batch #12 shows that the answer is a definitive “yes” and a wavering “maybe?”

Kentucky Owl was founded in 2014 by Dixon Dedman along with a few partners. It was a relaunch of a whiskey brand that his ancestor C.M. Dedman started in 1879 that ultimately shuttered in 1916 because of Prohibition. Of course, the new Kentucky Owl has little to do with the original aside from pedigree and name, but it quickly reached “cult bourbon” status because of the high quality of the sourced whiskey in the bottles, which came with equally high prices. In 2017, Dedman sold the brand to Stoli Group, and a year later ground was broken on a new distillery that is being built in Bardstown, Kentucky, the epicenter of bourbon. In May of 2021, it was announced that Dedman was departing Kentucky Owl, and he has since launched 2XO Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey which is just hitting the market.

In June of 2021, John Rhea joined Kentucky Owl as master blender after 40 years in the whiskey industry, including a job as COO of Four Roses. Since coming onboard, he has worked on Batch #11 of the core bourbon lineup and two special releases, the St. Patrick’s Edition and Takumi Edition. Which brings us to the current bourbon, Batch #12. This is a blend of young (four-year-old) and older (seven to 14-year-old) bourbon, bottled at 115.8 proof and priced at $400.

And that price tag is a relevant piece of information here, because there are many who might wonder why they should consider paying so much for sourced whiskey that falls within the age range of bottles that cost less than a quarter of that. If quality matters first and foremost, as it should, let’s start out with the fact that this new bourbon is very good. Indeed, this blend showcases a nice balance between young and old, which is certainly the point of using this range of ages. Greener, spicier notes mingle with flavors that come from the more mature whiskeys like deep cherry, vanilla, caramel and a touch of oak, and the palate is undercut with spice and a hit of heat on the finish.

Overall, this is a very satisfying whiskey that continues the trajectory of previous Kentucky Owl batches, and is proof that Rhea is doing everything he can to keep the unicorn status of the brand alive and kicking. And yes, the same people that balked at paying $400 (or much more on the secondary market) for a bottle of bourbon that Dedman blended will feel similarly about this new whiskey. To be fair, it’s kind of a hard sell—except I guess it really isn’t because the reality is that people snap up bottles like this as soon as they hit the shelves. Based on flavor alone, this is an excellent bourbon that is great for sipping and has layers of flavor. As far as its value and worth, that’s a judgment call you’ve got to make based on your means and appetite because there are plenty of other options out there. But if you do decide to take the plunge, you won’t be disappointed with this new high-end bourbon.

Score: 90

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What Our Score Means

  • 100: Worth trading your first born for
  • 95 – 99 In the Pantheon: A trophy for the cabinet
  • 90 – 94 Great: An excited nod from friends when you pour them a dram 
  • 85 – 89 Very Good: Delicious enough to buy, but not quite special enough to chase on the secondary market
  • 80 – 84 Good: More of your everyday drinker, solid and reliable
  • Below 80 It’s alright: Honestly, we probably won’t waste your time and ours with this 

Every week Jonah Flicker tastes the most buzzworthy and interesting whiskeys in the world. Check back each Friday for his latest review.

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