Here at Kentucky Owl we are passionate about creating fine small batch and single barrel, barrel strength bourbon.
Back in 1879, in the now forgotten community of Oregon along the Kentucky River in northern Mercer County, there stood a distillery that produced Kentucky Owl bourbon. It was founded by C.M. Dedman, an orphan adopted by a judge who gifted it to him as a wedding present. Dedman operated Kentucky Owl until 1916, when state government agents compelled by the rising tides of teetotalism swooped in and spirited away all of Dedman’s stock, some 250,000 gallons in various stages of aging, hauling it by barge up the river to be warehoused under lock and key in Frankfort.
Sometime after Prohibition was enacted nationwide in 1919, a mysterious fire that burned considerably less hot than a building full of whiskey should, leveled the warehouse.
It is imagined that Al Capone or some other big-time crime boss of the era cut a deal for the contents of the warehouse before it burned, and that Kentucky Owl kept the well-heeled well oiled throughout Prohibition, served up at the finest speakeasies as a rich man’s alternative to bathtub gin.
Dedman’s son, T. C. Dedman Sr., spent a good part of his life seeking some sort of recompence for the purloined bourbon, but never saw a penny. In spite of that considerable loss, the family managed to survive, coming into ownership of Harrodsburg’s famed Beaumont Inn, where it continues to thrive.
Cool story, right? Much of it can be documented as fact; the rest is the misty stuff of legend woven by generations of Dedmans in late-night conversations ripened by a splash or two of the good stuff.
“As my grandfather used to say, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,’ so we’ll play it up big,” says Dixon Dedman, the fifth-generation scion of Beaumont Inn, where he presides over the Old Owl Tavern and Owl’s Nest Lounge.
Dixon, 33, will be telling that story many times in the coming months as the resurrected Kentucky Owl brand is introduced into the burgeoning bourbon market as a premium handcrafted, small batch, barrel proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It is expected to fetch about $150 a bottle upon its debut and move well beyond that price among collectors.
The new Kentucky Owl is six years in the making, a collaboration between Dixon and Mark and Sherri Carter, California innkeepers and prestigous winemakers who have been friends of the Dedmans for years.
The three got together July 16 at Strong Spirits in Bardstown to watch as the first five barrels of Kentucky Owl were bottled into the first 1,506 fifths that will soon be available at select liquor stores and restaurants in the commonwealth. Dixon and Sherri had hand-numbered each of the bottles the day before, including the bourbon’s potency —59.7 percent alcohol or 118.4 proof.
“Sherri did the first 800,” Dixon explains. “Number 1,237 is where my hand cramped up. We had a sample bottle sitting there on the table. I needed to take a break.”
They had not sampled their wares the next morning as the burnished amber liquid filled the bottles and seals were fastened over the corks, but they were surely intoxicated as the fruit of their labors rolled down the line as a finished product.
“I’ve never seen anyone so bubbly about it,” remarked Dan Cole of Think Packaging, the Bardstown company that made the labels from Sherri’s updated version of the original Kentucky Owl label. “Most people are ‘Aaargh. Just get it done.’ They are tore up about this.”
Mark explained the giddiness. “This is our child we just gave birth to. That’s why we’re so happy.”
That enthusiasm continued to burn brightly as Dixon and the Carters recounted the story of how Kentucky Owl came to be reborn.
Mark got to know Dixon’s parents, Chuck and Helen, almost 30 years ago as a member of the Independent Innkeepers Association and visited Beaumont Inn for a board meeting in 1998, when he first heard the tale of the old Kentucky Owl distillery.
Fast forward to an innkeepers convention in Austin, Texas, in 2008. Dixon had come of age and was presiding over the Old Owl Tavern, which served its first drink in 2004 after Harrodsburg voted to allow alcohol sales.
On a hilltop overlooking Austin, beneath a giant canopy where hundreds of innkeepers were serving up their best hospitality to their own, Dixon asked Mark about the possibility of creating a signature wine for Beaumont Inn. Mark wasn’t interested.
“I’m tired of wine. I’d rather try something new,” Mark responded. “What about that bourbon that was in your family? I just love that story about Prohibition and how that whiskey was stolen and they never got it back.”
As the evening progressed and the hospitality flowed unabated, the Dedmans and the Carters found themselves at the fringes of the party, dreaming up big, besotted bourbon dreams. The next morning, hangovers be damned, those dreams were still lucid and Kentucky Owl was on for real.
By law, the creation of Kentucky bourbon is not an instant gratification kind of thing. It must contain at least 51 percent corn and age in charred white oak barrels for at least two years before it can earn that distinction.
After four years, it can claim the status of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Beyond that, distillers don’t have to disclose its age, though many do on the notion that older is better.
After Austin, Dixon procured some whiskey already aging in barrels and enlisted some experienced distillers to create something new from a list of ingredients called a mash bill, consisting of water, corn, rye, malted barley and other grains in varying percentages that comprise the secretive recipe for each bourbon.
As their bourbon aged, developing characteristics as it expanded into the oak at higher temperatures and releasing as it cooled down, Dixon took samples every three months or so. He wanted something of the right profile to match the palette he developed hosting weekly bourbon tastings at Old Owl, which keeps more than 100 bourbons on hand.
“Around here, you kind of grow up a bourbon enthusiast, but I never thought I’d get as deep into this as I have,” Dixon said. “It goes from being a hobby to an obsession pretty quickly. I think it’s in my DNA.”
Some learned hands guided him along the way.
“Through the inn, we’ve had a connection to the distillers for a long time,” Dixon said. “Jimmy Rutledge, the master distiller at Four Roses, has tasted our stuff along the way and been very frank about it.”
Mark added, “They really adopted Dixon into the bourbon business. They are very happy to see Dixon and his family bring back their brand.”
Out in California, the Carters had their own expertise to contribute.
As a highly regarded winemaker, Mark knows a lot about cooperage, or barrel making, and understands the effects grain patterns in the oak and charring levels have on aging spirits. And he knows how to get a product from barrel to bottle to market successfully.
Sherri is an accomplished artist and marketer. She played a big hand in creating Kentucky Owl’s packaging and branding concept, striking a delicate balance between the bourbon’s historical legacy and the need to appeal to contemporary consumers.
She made the label’s old owl more robust, curved some of the text. She retained the historical essentials — “Established 1879” and “C.M. Dedman, Founder” — and even the brand’s old-timey slogan, “The wise man’s bourbon.” (”The more you drink, the smarter you get,” Mark quipped.)
“It is important for people to know the brand isn’t a start-up, that it has a past,” Sherri explained.
That past is crucial in the booming bourbon industry of 2014. International corporations are paying millions to snatch upon legendary brands like Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam, and folks the world over are making pilgrimages to Kentucky to partake of America’s only native spirit at its source.
The history, the traditions, the families and the stories attached to a bourbon label are as much a part of a brand’s success as the actual stuff in the bottles.
“Folklore is such a big part our industry,” said Adam Johnson, former director of Boyle County tourism who now heads the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
Even though there are hundreds of Kentucky bourbons already available at every price point, Johnson has little doubt Kentucky Owl will find a spot on the top shelves.
“I’ve tasted it. It’s a great product,” Johnson said. “It’s a limited release. You put in a little scarcity, with the story behind it, and I think they’ve got a real hit on their hands. Once people learn the history and get to taste it, it will definitely start to generate a buzz.
“What they did is extremely difficult,” he continued. “The process of putting a distilled product out there isn’t easy. They had to jump through a lot of hoops and bureaucracy to resurrect their brand. It takes a Herculean effort.”
Republic National Distributors of Kentucky actually controls the future of the 1,500 bottles from Batch 1 of Kentucky Owl.
“They cut us a check and they basically own it,” Dixon said.
Republic will determine when Kentucky Owl is released — Dixon said it might debut in August but likely no later than the fall. They also determine where it will be available and the wholesale price. Retailers will add their markup.
“I anticipate it will be priced $150 to $160 a bottle,” Dixon said. “That’s where I’d like to see it, but I think a lot will be pushed up. I hope that it’s so popular people will pay any amount to get it.”
While waiting the see the splash Kentucky Owl makes, Dixon will be keeping close tabs on the other barrels getting their age on, waiting for a handful of them to find the “sweet spot” and become Batch 2.
It might be six months from now, a year, whenever the mystery of the stuff reveals itself.
“We’re never going to put anything out there we don’t believe in,” he said. “We’re not on any sort of timetable. It will tell us when it’s ready.”
(Source: Central Kentucky News, Article By TODD KLEFFMAN )
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