There are certain names in the whiskey industry that most any drinker would find intriguing when attached to a new bourbon brand, and it’s fair to say that Dixon Dedman is one of those names. The well-known blender garnered some serious critical acclaim when he relaunched the Kentucky Owl brand back in 2014, an homage to an early brand once produced by his great-great grandfather. Dedman got quite a bit of attention for the well-aged (and expensive) blends he then assembled for Kentucky Owl, before the brand was sold to Stoli in 2017. In the years since, Kentucky Owl has arguably lost some of its luster, increasingly putting out blends with rationales and theming that don’t always make a lot of sense, while Dedman has consulted on other projects and stepped back somewhat from the spotlight.
In late 2022, however, the master blender reemerged with a new company of his own, entitled 2XO. Standing for “Two Times Oak,” the name neatly seems to imply that the entire project will revolve around secondary oak finishes, although it theoretically leaves it open to the whiskey world beyond bourbon. For the brand’s initial release, though, it’s unsurprisingly a batch of bourbon that was blended—The Phoenix Blend hit shelves within the last few months, though I’m only getting around to tasting it now. This is the first of 2XO’s small batch releases, which will apparently be followed by additional small batch blend releases and a single barrel release from 2XO in each calendar year. Each small batch blend will differ, “bearing a distinctive name and symbol inspired by Dedman’s passion to innovate, collaborate and create high-quality liquids with unique characteristics and profiles.”
As for deeper details on The Phoenix Blend itself, they’re really pretty scarce. Here’s what we know: This is a non-age stated blend of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskeys, from two different, unstated distilleries, with two different mash bills. One is described as “moderate rye content,” and the other “a very high rye bourbon mash bill.” After blending, Dedman then “re-barrels his hand-selected aged whiskey into new charred oak barrels to create a unique combination of intense flavors, character and complexity in each blend.” The Phoenix Blend is bottled at 52% ABV (104 proof), which I’m assuming is not quite cask strength.
Now at this point, finishing a bourbon or blend of bourbons with a secondary maturation in newly charred oak has become a well-understood niche of the modern whiskey market, rather than a cutting-edge gimmick. We’ve tasted many brands undergoing this kind of process, from always available shelf staples to limited edition rarities like this year’s recently released Parker’s Heritage Double Barreled Blend.
With that said, although the process has become familiar, you still never know quite what you’ll get out of a whiskey that gets secondary maturation in a newly charred barrel. In some cases, it seems to amplify the sweet oak or caramelized sugar characteristics; in others it introduces much more char and roast. Still other times, it really seems to accentuate spice, tannin or astringency. So let’s get to tasting 2XO Phoenix Blend and see what kind of character has been highlighted here.
On the nose, my very first thought on this one is of Christmas-like toffee, followed quickly by jammy dark fruit compote. There’s something more deeply caramelized at play, though, and suggestive of more bitterness—molasses, met by clove and a notable impression of cola space. I’m also getting black pepper, and no shortage of oak that is both earthy/musty and roasty/burnt.
On the palate, I find the secondary maturation of 2XO Phoenix Blend is increasingly grabbing the spotlight, with oak-derived flavors becoming the driving force for this bottle. The molasses is there, slightly bitter, along with dark chocolate and sweet nuttiness that evokes peanut butter, but it makes for a slightly incongruous bedfellow with the intense roast and ashy notes that follow. There’s sweet oak, but it can’t really hold itself up against the more intense roasty astringency—nor can most of the sweetness. There’s also some nice dark fruitiness evocative of blackberry, along with clove spice, but in the end this one just strikes me as unbalanced toward the roast, perhaps in an effort to highlight the finishing barrels as dramatically as possible. Generally, I’m a fan of highly “charred” bourbon flavors, but here it just seems like a bit much.
This is one of those bottles where I feel like I can see exactly what was intended, but it seems like it got slightly sidetracked in getting there. At the same time, though, I find myself wondering if this is on of those drams that might strike me as significantly different on another day, or in a different mood—not questions I typically find myself asking when I’m tasting a new bourbon. It seems there’s something ephemeral about the flavor profile of this second barrel finish, an x-factor that is almost hitting right for me, but seems subtly off at the same time.
All in all, I’d still say this is a promising debut, and there should be no concerns about something like the lack of an age statement, as this liquid seems plenty mature. I have a feeling that subsequent batches of 2XO will likely diverge in unique ways, and I’m willing to bet that there will probably one that lights up the peculiar little pleasure centers of my brain. I’ll be keeping a curious eye out for them.
City: Non-distiller producer
Style: Blend of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskeys
ABV: 52% (104 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $100 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.