Kentucky Owl® in the New York Times

KENTUCKY, USA – “This region has matured with the rise of the bourbon industry the way a stupid underage kid grows up to be a sophisticated adult,” Dixon Dedman of Kentucky Owl said. “I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that we’d be where we are today.” Credit: Jessica Ebelhar for The New York Times.

Led by Cult Bourbons, Distillers Dream of a ‘Napa-fication’ of Kentucky

In September 2014, a bourbon brand called Kentucky Owl began to appear on liquor-store shelves around Louisville. The American whiskey market was booming, and dozens of new bourbons were showing up each year. But Kentucky Owl was different. Released exclusively within the state in tiny quantities and produced by the scion of an old Kentucky whiskey family, it had an undeniable mystique — and a price tag of $170.

To skeptics, Kentucky Owl was proof that the whiskey trend had reached its Tulip Mania moment. At the time, few bourbons commanded even $50 at retail. Plus, the man behind the brand, Dixon Dedman, didn’t even make the whiskey himself; he bought barrels from other distilleries, then blended them. Surely the bubble was about to pop.

It didn’t. Within a few weeks, nearly every bottle of Kentucky Owl had sold out. On the secondary market, flippers were asking — and getting — five times what they had paid in stores. “Before you knew it, before anybody had reviewed it, you had people camping out to buy a bottle of Kentucky Owl,” said Fred Minnick, the editor of Bourbon+ magazine and the author of “Bourbon: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American Whiskey.”

Several factors gave Kentucky Owl a boost. It had heritage: Mr. Dedman, whose family runs a century-old inn popular with bourbon fans, named it after a long-defunct brand created by his great-great-grandfather. Early hype by retailers, along with rumors about the source of the whiskey, also built early interest.

Whiskey fans and writers talk about Kentucky Owl as the next Pappy Van Winkle, Mr. Van Winkle’s flagship brand, bottles of which often fetch $5,000 or more. Others, betting on Mr. Dedman’s blending skills and the global growth of American whiskey, see it going even higher, to sit in the same category as the Macallan single malt or Château Latour Bordeaux.

By Clay Risen,