A year has flown by and the time has come around again to select my Bourbon of the Year. With the amount of time I spend nosing, tasting, writing, logging and blogging, it’s a decision I don’t take at all lightly. I cracked open my note book to reveal all of my thoughts and meanderings about the various glasses of bourbon, whiskey and scotch I’ve had the opportunity to taste over the past year. Some great. Some good. Some not so good. One that I would like to leave laying on the floor like Joe Pesci’s final scene in Goodfellas. A couple that were fantastic. I poured through my reviews and tasting notes. Scribbles on the backs of cocktail napkins, random scraps of paper covered in scratchy black ink, photos of notes jotted on my hand. For a little added research and fun, I pulled out bottles, sipped and re-sipped. Never let it be said that I didn’t take my research to the furthest extent of possibility….or sobriety for that matter. But Bourbon of the Year, that’s a special mantle. It has to have something special. That “X” factor that separates it from the rest of the pack. A back story to go with the pour. One that not only has impeccable nose, palate and finish, but one that can impact you on emotional levels, triggering olfactory indexes that take you back to moments and places in your past, or make you feel wistful and thoughtful. Not just a pour, but an experience. That’s what I look for.
There were a few obvious standouts.
2016 was a year that for me was punctuated often by Willett Family Estate releases as well. As usual, Drew Kulsveen and Company churned out multiple stellar single barrel releases lovingly aged in the little barns on their hilltop and I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention one specific barrel, the 826, with its elementary school lunchbox peanut butter sammich and chocolate bar goodness. There were a couple of others I’m still trying to find a way to taste, but they are proving as elusive as finding bigfoot…..
The 2016 William Larue Weller was an absolute joy and could certainly be considered the first runner-up.
But for all of them, there was one that from the very first sip held my fancy, and only one that I thought was the best. The very best. There was only one bourbon this year that I repeatedly professed my affection for from the first time I tasted it, over and over. One bourbon that time and again I would recommend to every friend. One bourbon that impacted me.
The Epic Bourbon 2016 Bourbon of the Year is Kentucky Owl Batch 6.
For me, this bottle had it all and then some. The accolades I could foist on it are numerous. At first, I was a little conflicted picking such an extremely limited bourbon (the quantities, at just over 1600 bottles, about as rare as anything you can attain). But I accepted that component of exclusivity as just another qualifying factor in the criteria that made Kentucky Owl Batch 6 feel ultra-special. Like Willett Family Estate, it was only available in limited, select places; that being the Beaumont Inn, or a couple of stores and restaurants in Kentucky.
But frankly that was the only dilemma, and I got over the dilemma quickly. What matters is not the quantity of bottles or their geographic distribution because those are not part of my yardstick of greatness. I was grading the bourbon that in my opinion was the absolute best of the year.
When I did a quick review of Owl 6 back in August, I said that it was so good it deserved two reviews, and I meant that. I told a few different people that it was certainly a contender for Bourbon of the Year….but there were so many releases left to drink, including the 2016 BTAC. After having it all, I’m even more convinced that Owl 6 is the best. My actual words 4 months ago were “It’s early, and the fall releases haven’t been sent out yet, but it’s really hard to see anything else topping this one for my selection as Epic Bourbon’s Bourbon of the Year.” Well, I’ve had them, and tasted numerous other things this year, and for me the Owl 6 beats them all.
I know what some people are going to say, “But’ but, but, Kentucky Owl is an NDP. That can’t be your bourbon of the year!” All I can say is stow that talk. It’s polar opposite of most NDP’s, either those that release single barrels or small batches. The contents of this bottle don’t represent some “luck of the draw” honey barrel from hundreds sitting out in the warehouse. Nor does it have anything in common with a batch that is cobbled together based on nothing other than what is left on the dock, or in an effort to fill a tank.
What Owl 6 IS, is bourbon that’s crafted by someone whose palate I and many other people respect. Kentucky Owl Proprietor Dixon Dedman meticulously sampled barrel after barrel of aging stock, selecting a few special barrels that he married together to produce the exact desired profile. He then re-barreled them in new charred oak, left them to age, and THEN bottled them at barrel proof. No other NDP is doing that, at least on such a micro-level. The great thing about Dixon is, he isn’t doing this as a first line of profit. Kentucky Owl is his passion, not his lifeblood. He does this because bourbon is in his DNA. He doesn’t have to churn out release after release in order to keep the lights on, meet a production schedule or keep the corporate office back in Japan happy. He does it when it’s proper to do so, when the bourbon is perfect, rather than perfectly acceptable.
And the proof is in the contents.
The color is the first thing that hints at the specialness of Kentucky Owl Batch 6. It’s so dark. “Dark Magic”, the sobriquet coined by one of my good friends and bourbon compatriots. Swirling it in the glass leaves thick, syrupy legs spider-webbing down the glencairn’s parabolic sides, like an astronaut’s view of the Mississippi delta.
Pouring it into the glencairn, it glugs out of the bottle, thick and oily.
From the outset, the nose is a plume of smoky char and caramel, dollops of buttery, spiced clover honey dusted with soft cocoa powder, red berry preserves, hints of mouthwatering long cut tobacco, and short bursts of “breakfast spices”, those being cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. That re-barreled oakiness is so apparent, and has an essence of smoldering logs in a stone hearth of a 150 year old grinding mill, fizzled out but still smoking. My original review said it best: “The entirety of the nose put me in mind of the way grandma’s kitchen used to smell on cold winter mornings, when you knew she had been up early, stoking the wood stove, wood caramelizing, getting the griddles good and hot and slathering them with butter, slinging a thick slice of bread that had been dredged through a batter of cinnamon and spice to make decadent French toast.”
One more component that vaulted Owl 6 above the rest of the 2016 releases: the mouth feel. Hot damn! It’s unlike any other that I’ve ever had, and is the component that I keep opining on to everyone. Thick, oily and viscous, similar to the consistency of buttery pancake syrup or olive oil! Honest to goodness olive oil! I have no idea how it happened, if it was planned or just a fantastic accident, but I’m not going to question it. I said it before and I stand on this: It reminded me a lot of Bernheim-era Weller.
The flavor profile has a richness that the best bourbons possess has a distinct refinement and subtle sweetness, but not overly sweet. There is a specific kind of richness; a molasses, country corn syrup sugar. The caramelized outer skin of a marshmallow toasted over a campfire. Another dose of sweet, juicy tobacco burns your mouth. There is a level of oak spiciness that bites back. That fresh woodiness is in the profile as well.
The finish has a fine, long sizzle. At 111.2 proof (which is 10 points below what I consider my sweet spot), it marches across all areas of my palate. The thick consistency of Owl 6 coats every surface in a juicy, simmering elixir of oak and peppery spice.
For an added treat, leave your glencairn out overnight to allow the residue to cook down at the bottom of the glass, and sniff it the next morning before your coffee for a wonderful burst of buttery praline and oak.
The story, the process, the nose, the flavor, the finish…..All of these things add up to present you with a stellar example of bourbon that is obviously the best of the bunch.
In my opinion it’s everything a Bourbon of the Year should be.
Congrats Dixon Dedman and Kentucky Owl Batch 6, Epic Bourbon’s 2016 Bourbon of the Year!