The tale of Kentucky Owl may be long and winding, but it’s only just beginning
Written by Phoebe Calver
To fully understand where the Kentucky Owl brand is going, you must first see where it has been. It was founded in 1879 by pharmacist Charles Mortimer Dedman; his distillery was located on the banks of the Kentucky River and produced ‘The Wise Man’s Bourbon’ until Prohibition put a stop to his work in 1916.
It was at that point that 250,000 gallons of Kentucky Owl whiskey were seized by federal agents and shipped up river to the state capital. However, shortly after, the warehouse mysteriously burned to the ground and took all of the bourbon with it.
It took until 2014 for new life to be breathed into the brand. That new life initially came in the form of Charles’ great-great grandson, Dixon Dedman. Dixon had worked at his family’s Beaumont Inn, located along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, and heard the story of Kentucky Owl’s rise and fall many times, hoping to eventually bring back the brand. With the help of family friends and kind distillers, Dixon was able to get his hands on some excellent barrels of Kentucky bourbon and began to look into hand-selecting and blending them to recreate a new, small-batch Kentucky Owl.
After six years of dedicated work, he created a batch good enough to suit his tastes. Dixon’s artfully blended craft bourbons have become a cult sensation. Every batch has sold out, almost solely by word of mouth.
Then came the next major player in the brand’s resurrection: Stoli Group. From the outset there was a nautral alignment of values between Dedman and Stoli; Yuri Shefler, the founder of Stoli Group, is known for his eye for detail, perfection and the creation of quality. It was the perfect match.
A little over two years ago, Damian McKinney, global CEO of Stoli Group, came on board to launch a massive transformation of the company. “It really is about that final experience,” explains McKinney. “A big part of that [transformation] was to go from what was effectively a vodka company, to an ultra-premium company. How do we shift now to a series of luxury brands? That’s why Elit [Vodka] started… and then we started to build our own brands for rum and tequila.”
It was at that point, with a close eye on the booming bourbon market, that Dedman and Stoli joined forces and the latter bought the brand.
“We wanted something that had real quality, but also had a real story and heritage behind it,” says McKinney. “And, of course, the whole story around Prohibition, and Dixon and the family relationship… was very powerful, very niche at the time, and one of the things Dixon had done was focus on just quality liquid again.”
The two were united on the desire for quality, but the challenge for Stoli and McKinney was to find a way to share this amazing brand with people around the world – in Nairobi, Tokyo, and London, to name a few places. “These are people who really appreciate great whiskey,” adds McKinney. “They’re experimenting – whether it’s Scotch, whether it’s Japanese or otherwise, they are looking for great experiences in the whiskey area.”
Dixon made the decision that he was happy to hand over the baton and entrust the direction of Kentucky Owl to McKinney and the team. The challenge then, and the key to continued success, was to find somebody that really understood the art of blending. There were a combination of factors to be considered: the chemistry associated with blending, the art of it, and then a little bit of what McKinney calls “the magic – you know, the extra little bit”.
Out of this consideration came John Rhea, former COO for Four Roses. “I just keep calling him a magician because I don’t know how he does it,” says McKinney. “He had the ability to scale, which is unique… it’s still limited [batches] but scale in a way that I could share it, otherwise I’d only be sharing it with a few people. So, not only did he give me scale, but the other thing I wanted from him was disruption.
“We want to make sure everyone has the best experiences… so let’s be innovative and disruptive in this.”
It was out of this desire for creative disruption that the team took its first steps towards its gradually forming selection of limited-edition releases. The first release, named Kentucky Owl Straight Bourbon St Patrick’s Edition, was a result of teaming up with Louise McGuane, founder of J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey. McKinney wanted to find the best blender in Ireland and put her in a room with Kentucky bourbon. Because of her expertise with bonding Irish whiskey, they wanted to see what would happen when that chemistry came into play once again.
McKinney muses, “Imagine if you could do it in such a way that if you were an Irish whiskey drinker you could go, wow, you can taste the Irish whiskey in it… and she did it brilliantly.
“John Rhea, because of his style and who he is, was open to collaboration… so we had the magic of the two. So then we said, let’s do it with Japanese whiskey.”
Kentucky Owl Takumi Edition is the brand’s second limited-edition release, developed by Rhea in partnership with Yusuke Yahisa, master blender at Nagahama Distillery in Japan. Through projects such as this, not only is Kentucky Owl sharing whiskey but it is also bringing people into bourbon that wouldn’t ordinarily interact with the spirit.
“What we wanted to do was not water it down, but simply open it up to more consumers,” continues McKinney. “And we’re working on another one and we’ve just found a distiller… it’s global, it’s collaborative and it’s opening the opportunity for people. John is a puritan that is happy to share.”
On the other side of the whiskey coin at Kentucky Owl is Wiseman. The team understood that for some, $120 is too much to spend on a single bottle of whiskey and wanted to find a way to encourage Gen Z and Millennial consumers into the fold. “They’re pretty discerning consumers… they drink less, they drink better,” adds McKinney. “So that led to Wiseman. We said, let’s bring something in at around $55 – it still has to be high quality and aspirational and to
show there is value. You truly are getting quality liquid.”
For McKinney and Kentucky Owl, one of the most important things in that scenario is building trust. Similarly to taking a partner home to meet your friends or family, the brand wanted to be able to stand up to questioning and be a trusted member of the gang.
But, of course, this trusted member of the gang needs a distillery home. As we speak, the distillery is being built on the site of a former quarry.
“You know, frankly we took over an old quarry… three big holes, three small holes,” explains McKinney. “Now when you see it we have these beautiful lakes… we’re clearing the ground, we’re building.”
However, one of the big questions was how to build something that is not only sympathetic with nature, but also sustainable with nature and forward looking. That is where Japanese architect Shigeru Ban came in, with an understanding of exactly how to do that.
“That’s why we say the wisdom of the owl… wisdom comes with age. In a way, what we have with this brand, and indeed within the industry, is a lot of wisdom,” continues McKinney. “So our aim here is to say, how do we take that wisdom, but also build something that is forward looking?”
Forward looking is certainly the key for Kentucky Owl, particularly when you consider that for a time its future was taken away from it. McKinney explains that the distillery should be at full functionality and producing its own liquid by 2025, with the hope of bringing distillers and blenders in from all around the world to enjoy a sort of whiskey laboratory, and to build skills for future generations.