As I sit down to write this review, I’m asking myself a question: Is there anything a bourbon could possibly do, in terms of the liquid in the bottle, to justify an MSRP of $1,000? Is there any combination of age statements, proof points, legendary distillers or special finishes that could make me say “Sure, that’s a reasonable price point”? If it was say, the finest whiskey that Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle ever distilled, would even that command an MSRP of $1,000 … keeping in mind that although Van Winkle bottles are often sold at such prices, the actual MSRPs of the series max out at $300 for Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year?
And the more I think about it, the more I can only conclude that the answer to my question is “no.” There’s just no way you can humanly rationalize an MSRP of $1,000 for a bottle of bourbon, no matter how special that whiskey purports to be. A bourbon with that kind of pricing, by its very nature HAS TO BE the greatest whiskey you’ve ever had. And Kentucky Owl’s new Dry State bourbon, while good, is nowhere near the level of transcendent, mind-bending quality that its crazy, $1,000 price tag would demand. In fact, it’s not even the best bourbon I’ve had from Kentucky Owl in the last few years.
Let us first explain the specs behind Kentucky Owl Dry State, before we sample the liquid and dissect the impossible task of justifying that price tag. This is a limited release blend of bourbons that was created to celebrate the passage of a century since the start of Prohibition in 1920. The company describes this blend as its oldest and “rarest” to date, being a well-aged blend of bourbons between 12 and 17 years old, and bottled at 115 proof. It’s not entirely clear if this is the natural cask strength for the blend, or whether it has been diluted to this particular strength, as recent Kentucky Owl batches have had proof points in the 120s. As with all Kentucky Owl releases, the company doesn’t disclose the source of its whiskeys—as such, it is relying entirely on the reputation of the KO name and whatever hype it has accrued since 2014 to justify the $1,000 price point per bottle. The size of the batch, meanwhile, is 2,000 bottles.
Those are the facts of what this bourbon is, in terms of the liquid in the bottle. In terms of its role to the company, on the other hand, Dry State would appear to be an experiment in extreme premiumization, to see just how high Kentucky Owl can push a price tag. This is a level well beyond the numbers that even the most prized previous Kentucky Owl bottles have fetched on the secondary market.
Perhaps to soften this blow, the company has partnered with auction house Christie’s to auction off a handful of bottles to directly benefit the National Restaurant Association’s Employee Advancement Fund, “a charitable enterprise dedicated to establishing a long-term recovery solution for service industry workers who have had their careers stunted due to the adverse impacts of COVID-19.” These auctions are now live via Christie’s, with starting prices of $1,500, and will continue through Oct. 1. The company’s statement:
“Kentucky Owl Dry State’s release during this centennial anniversary of Prohibition is a reflection on our past, but also an opportunity to support the hardworking men and women affected by the closing of bars and restaurants across the country,” says Dixon Dedman, Kentucky Owl Master Blender. “We’re also proud to work with the National Restaurant Association’s Employee Relief Fund and keep shining a spotlight on the plight of talented restaurant employees, many who are proud stewards of the bourbons we produce in Kentucky.”
Is that nice to see? Sure. Absolutely. Good on them for doing it. If the entire release was for charity, this would make more sense. But we should of course note that this is five bottles of the 2,000 bottle batch. And the rest of them will be sold to the public at $1,000 a piece. So yeah … there’s money being made here, and a price point being set that has essentially almost no comparison outside the world of 40-year-old single malt scotch releases.
Consider some of these comparisons. Pappy Van Winkle’s 15, 20 and 23-year-old expressions carry MSRPs of $120, $200 and $300 respectively. Their values on the secondary market may be through the roof, but many people still get a chance to buy them at MSRP each year, whether or not they intend to drink them or resell them. To actively set your MSRP at $1,000 is a statement that seems to say “this bourbon commands three times more hype than Pappy Van Winkle 23 year,” which I don’t think I need to tell you is ridiculous.
Let’s consider another, more recent example, though, and one that I think is ultimately a better comparison given the difficulty of comparing Pappy to anything: Brown-Forman’s third yearly release of the limited edition King of Kentucky bourbon, which we gave an ecstatic review. King of Kentucky is a 14-year-old bourbon, weighing in at a robust 130 proof, in a batch size of 1,900 bottles. Its MSRP: $250. Which is to say, King of Kentucky is similar in age statement to Kentucky Owl Dry State, while also having a higher proof, and a slightly more limited run of bottles … and it’s still a mere 25% the asking price of the latter. A $250 bottle of bourbon is still a huge expenditure for almost anyone, but how can it not look like a value when you compare it to $1,000? If these two bottles are somehow sitting next to each other on a store shelf, is the consumer supposed to assume that Dry State is inherently 400% more delicious than King of Kentucky?
Try as I might, I just can’t come up with a way that the price point makes sense. So let’s just forget about that for a moment and actually taste the whiskey.
On the nose, Dry State presents with deep oakiness and and confectionery notes of caramel donuts, fudge and vanilla. There’s a very deep caramel or molasses richness here, and an appealing combination of citrus and dark fruit jam. The decadent cocoa is especially enticing, and on the nose I actually am reminded a bit of the King of Kentucky in particular, although it’s not as bombastic as the Brown-Forman release, which makes sense given the lower proof point. All in all, it’s an excellent nose.
On the palate, Dry State is somewhat drier than I was initially expecting, without as much fruitiness as the nose suggested. The cocoa is still there in a big way, as is the vanilla, but it then segues into a considerably more savory and oaky dimension. To its credit, the tannic nature of that oak is delicate, and there’s a little bit of woody bitterness, but it’s in no way overwhelming. What I get more of is barrel roastiness, oak funk, leather, pipe tobacco and cocoa, along with a good charge of rye spice and some caramelized nuts. It’s certainly a showcase for some complex, deeply oaky and savory bourbon, although the palate is perhaps not quite as enticing as the nose to my taste.
With that said, however: If I had a blind line-up of this bourbon next to Kentucky Owl Bourbon Batch #9 and Rye Batch #3, I wouldn’t be surprised if I picked both of them over Dry State. That’s less a criticism of Dry State than it is praise for two of the most recent Kentucky Owl batches, which I reviewed in glowing terms. I wasn’t crazy about the $300 and $200 price tags for that bourbon and that rye respectively, but once again, compared to $1,000 that seems much more reasonable.
The bottom line is that Kentucky Owl Dry State is very good bourbon, but that no release of new bourbon could ever justify the price point at which it’s been set—I don’t care who it’s from. I will be very curious to see how long these particular bottles will be available when released, because even with bourbon hype being what it is, I’d like to think that a $1,000 price tag (or more) on every single one of these 2,000 bottles will result in even the most dedicated collectors being hesitant. But then again, maybe they’ll all sell out on day one, and the next release will be $2,000 per bottle. Each outcome seems equally likely, these days.
Distillery: Kentucky Owl
City: Bardstown, KY
ABV: 57.5% (115 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $1,000 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.