As we wrote when Kentucky Owl first launched The Wiseman line back in October:
Since its inception, Stoli Group’s Kentucky Owl brand has been defined by an ultra-premium price point, with $300 editions being a norm, and occasional special releases like last year’s Dry State carrying truly absurd price tags in the $1,000 range. In the process, the brand helped to normalize the idea of purchasing $200 or $300 bottles of bourbon from an independent bottler, rationalized by the idea that a superlative master blender is creating blends from well-aged sourced bourbon that you wouldn’t be able to taste anywhere else. Since Kentucky Owl first came onto the scene, we’ve seen an exponential increase in the number of sourced, ultra-premium brands out there.
Eventually, though, the pendulum always swings in the opposite direction, and even the likes of Kentucky Owl begin considering how they might exploit the non-luxe bourbon market. Enter, The Wiseman, a new Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey from Kentucky Owl that may well redefine the company’s image with its lower age statements, proof point and price tag. Suffice to say, one has never been able to purchase a bottle with the Kentucky Owl name on it for anywhere close to $60 before.
We liked The Wiseman Straight Bourbon well enough, finding it to be an adaptable and versatile everyday bourbon, although it’s notable that even at that more affordable price point, there are still a lot of competing options that arguably provide even bigger value on the market. For its first extension of The Wiseman line, though, Kentucky Owl has turned in the direction of rye whiskey, and the results are pretty interesting. It’s a non-age-stated product, but the increased strength (100.8 proof) in particular helps to set this one apart, even as it includes a familiar mash bill from a less familiar source.
The Wiseman Straight Rye Whiskey is made from the aforementioned familiar 95% rye, 5% malted barley mash bill that is intimately associated with Indiana’s MGP, but this is no Indiana rye—it’s a Kentucky own, distilled entirely by the ultra-flexible folks over at Bardstown Bourbon Co. The BBC crew has adapted the classic 95-5 recipe as their own, and this whiskey was then guided and blended by Kentucky Owl Master Blender John Rhea. As stated above, there’s no official age statement, but the “straight rye” label with no additional specific age statement tells us that it’s at least 4 years old, and maybe a little older. This is younger overall than The Wiseman Straight Bourbon, so perhaps that’s why Kentucky Owl decided to bump the proof point, from 90.8 proof (45.4% ABV) in the bourbon to 100.8 proof (50.4% ABV) in the rye. That, or perhaps they just thought that a proof point close to “bonded” territory would play better for this whiskey as a cocktail rye. Regardless, it helps add a bit more value to this bottle, which has an MSRP of $60, the same as the bourbon.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, The Wiseman Straight Rye leads off with some honeyed sweetness, but absolutely no shortage of the rye grain—this is very rye forward indeed, with lots of peppercorn and anise, softened a bit with some toffee. Overall, it has the markings of a very spicy modern rye, with some herbal underpinnings, and one definitely gets a sense of the MGP-type DNA present in the 95-5 recipe. The only thing it’s missing on the nose that one would probably expect to get in a similar MGP rye, in fact, is that “dill” note that many drinkers associate with the recipe. But in all honesty, it’s very close in terms of the dryness and spiciness.
On the palate, the first surprising thing here is the texture—this is quite oily and full in terms of mouthfeel, which gives it a real sense of heft. There’s more honey here, although it’s balanced in terms of sweet/dry impressions, along with green tea, some hot cinnamon and tons of rye spice. Its flavor is very “pure” rye—this really seems like the unrestrained and boldly spicy flavor of unmalted rye that was traditionally used in rye whiskey making, rather than the doughy, bready, malted rye that has sometimes been used by craft distillers more often. Personally, I typically find the drier, punchier, spicier rye more interesting, and I’m enjoying it here. In terms of additional notes, I’m also picking up on some green apple fruitiness, some toasted oak, and subtle and hard-to-place herbaceousness.
All in all? Like The Wiseman Straight Bourbon, this one is pretty classical and pretty versatile. The elevated proof point in particular makes this feel like it’s really intended to be a cocktail base of a rye, ready to lend its spice to your next Manhattan or what have you. Are there bigger overall values on the market, still? Sure, in a world where Rittenhouse Rye or Old Forester Straight Rye Whiskey exist, it’s going to be hard to beat that proof point. But compared to the exorbitant prices of the mainline Kentucky Owl editions, it does still feel like a value. And if one likes the flavor of rye, you can’t accuse this one of failing to deliver on it.
Distillery: Kentucky Owl (via Bardstown Bourbon Co.)
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Kentucky straight rye whiskey
ABV: 50.4% (100.8 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.