The story of Kentucky Owl is a long and illustrious one, dating back to the late 19th century when Charles Dedman first founded the iconic bourbon distillery.
For Dedman, it was imperative that his customers developed a genuine trust with the brand, opting to introduce the owl as an icon to represent his belief that people could, and should, consume alcohol, wisely.
“Over the years, as he visited the local bars and hotels, both his and our whiskey’s reputation grew,” Tom Jones, Global Ambassador for Stoli Group tells DMARGE. “So much so, that people began to refer to the whiskey as ‘the one that guy brought in, you know the wise guy, yeah, the Wiseman’s Whiskey!’”
It was then Kentucky Owl’s reputation grew as the smart choice for whiskey lovers, an inherent quality that has been carried by the iconic brand until today.
Launching In Australia for the first time in its storied history, Kentucky Owl has introduced some of its finest drops from its premium range to Australia’s many discerning dram-lovers. To celebrate the launch of The Wiseman, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Osborn House; a picturesque boutique hotel just a short drive from Sydney, tucked away amongst the sweeping surroundings of the Southern Highlands.
Here, we were introduced to the Owl’s select premium range now available in Australia, and it felt like the perfect location for a whiskey-soaked getaway by the fire.
We started the afternoon with a guided whiskey tasting led by Tom Jones, sampling four of Kentucky Owl’s most delectable offerings: The Wiseman Bourbon, The Wiseman Straight Rye, Kentucky Owl Confiscated, and finally, their exclusive, Kentucky Owl Batch No. 12 Bourbon.
Each was a distinctively special drop, but through a guided flight, Jones was animated as he regaled the history and rich flavours of this famous Kentucky whiskey house and its stellar selections.
“Prior to the start of prohibition, a large stock of Kentucky Owl was confiscated by the US Government, and held uninsured by them from the family,” Jones continued. “A mysterious Rickhouse fire destroyed all the barrels a great loss to the whiskey world, the government and most of all the family.”
“Newspaper reports from the time tell of the slowest Rickhouse fire in living memory! A Rickhouse full of whiskey is easily over in hours; this fire smouldered for many days! The whiskey surely wasn’t in there. Where had it gone?”
Much of the allure of the Kentucky Owl brand is the mysteries that surround it. They’re the stories you tell over the fire with a drink or three with friends and colleagues, regaling of past characters and forgotten timelines kept alive through word-of-mouth.
“Tales began to circulate the area of barges floating downstream in the dead of night, trucks rolling in the early hours and shady characters from out of town lurking in the shadows,” Jones continued. “Had the whiskey made its way to the speakeasies of Chicago? Were people such as Al Capone involved? We will likely never know for sure, but this marked the beginning of the end of Kentucky Owl for nearly a hundred years.”
More than 250,000 bottles were seized by the Federal Government before Prohibition, and for almost 100 years, Kentucky Owl was as elusive as it was exclusive, completely unattainable for the many aficionados who were seeking their signature blends.
However, the return of the Owl to whiskey making in the early 21st century has allowed for small-batch blends of distinction to thrive once more, and the Owl’s premium drops have now become highly sought-after by whiskey collectors and connoisseurs across the globe.
The first offering, The Wiseman Bourbon, is an expert blend of four different bourbons; two four-year-olds – one more wheated, and the other, with a higher content of Rye – are masterfully blended with a 5.5-year-old and 8.5-year-old secretly-sourced pair of bourbons.
The final product is a multi-award-winning nuanced expression of bourbon; rich and smooth, The Wiseman has up-front flavours of citrus and apple that sticks the landing with a soft, spicy finish.
Kentucky Owl’s renaissance in the world of whiskey has been led by John Rhea, Kentucky Distillers Association Bourbon Hall of Famer, who, in a short time, has been able to put his unique stamp on an already celebrated bourbon brand.
“I found the one thing that would bring me out of retirement… the opportunity to serve as a steward to Kentucky Owl Bourbon and Rye,” John Rhea, Master Blender at Kentucky Owl, said after joining the iconic whiskey distillers. ”I have long admired the Kentucky Owl product line-up and I am thrilled to have this opportunity.”
“The Wiseman Rye is a clinic in how to make a perfect Kentucky Straight Rye whiskey.”Tom Jones, Stoli Group Global Ambassador
The Wiseman Straight Rye makes its debut as the second premium whiskey introduced since Rhea’s arrival. A Gold winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2022, this exceptional blend marries a 95% rye mashbill with just a touch of malted barley, then artfully aged for a span of four years within medium-charred barrels.
The final product boasts a delicate, spicy character with sweet brown sugar and a dark raisin finish.
As we left the tasting, we were treated to Wisemanhattans, a signature cocktail, heavy in bourbon, maraschino and a dash of bitters – the perfect complement to the Wiseman’s unique flavour profile.
The cocktails continued with Wiseman Highballs, Wiseman Rye Boulevardiers and a chai-infused Old Fashioned, each accentuating the variety within the Wiseman range.
As the sun began to set, and Tom wove more tales to amaze and entertain, it felt poignant that the Kentucky Owl brand had started with whispers of a wise man who had advocated responsible drinking over a century ago, and here in the Southern Highlands in Australia, we were doing exactly the same thing… or perhaps that last old fashioned had started to influence my thinking.