St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. is indelibly associated with a few core tropes. The color green. Irish folk music. Stout beer. Corned beef. And of course, there’s Irish whiskey, whether it’s blended whiskey, Irish single malt whiskey, or the beloved national style known as single pot still Irish whiskey. These are the tropes that make up our cultural understanding of the holiday, which is of special importance to Americans of Irish descent in particular.
One thing that is distinctly not associated with St. Patrick’s Day? American bourbon whiskey. Although the holiday is of course known as one of the premiere drinking days on the American calendar, our own most famous contribution to the whiskey world is not by any means the traditional choice for celebrating it—not when actual Irish whiskey is readily available. With that said, we should hardly be surprised when a major U.S. whiskey producer indelicately slaps a green label on some bourbon as rationale for offering a limited “St. Patrick’s Limited Edition” bourbon. It’s a bit guileless, as gimmicks go, but that hasn’t stopped Stoli Group’s Kentucky Owl from doing just that.
The rationale here is that the newly released Kentucky Owl St. Patrick’s Limited Edition Bourbon Whiskey is a “celebration of the ties that connect Irish and Kentucky whiskey making,” and this blend was thus created as a collaboration between Kentucky Owl Master Blender John Rhea and Louise McGuane, “Ireland’s first modern whiskey bonder and founder of J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey.” Although it is certainly true that the history of American whiskey/bourbon stretches back to Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought their whiskey-making art to North America, eventually adapting that whiskey to readily available fermentables such as corn, this still feels like a rather blunt simplification. Suffice it to say, any whiskey drinker with even an iota of cynicism will likely just see a company taking advantage of a major drinking holiday with a new LE release—it is what it is.
So with that said, let’s talk about what this whiskey actually is. It was collaboratively blended by Rhea and McGuane from individual cask samples selected via blind tasting, ultimately resulting in a blend of Kentucky straight bourbons aged 4 to 11 years, bottled at a sturdy 50% ABV (100 proof). This is technically a four-grain blend, as the company notes it features “rich caramel notes and vanilla from rare older bourbons, spice and fruit from higher rye bourbons, and sweetness and citrus from wheated bourbons.” It’s not quite clear just how many whiskey are in this blend, but it sounds like a pretty eclectic lineup. The final result is a limited edition release with an MSRP of $135, with McGuane saying the following:
“We tasted through the lens of bringing fruit-forward profiles that are desirable to us as Irish whiskey makers, but we also wanted something still representative of the Kentucky Owl style. This blend tastes like the Kentucky Owl products whiskey drinkers love, with an echo of big and bold juicy fruit flavors so familiar in Irish whiskey.”
I can’t help but think that something like a blend of both American bourbon and Irish whiskey would have been a more substantial style of collaboration, and a more ambitious one, but it’s not hard to see why that also would have been inherently less marketable.
So, let’s get on to tasting this St. Patrick’s Limited Edition blend.
On the nose, I’m getting the expected combination of both young and old elements on this one, which leads off with fresh caramel corn and cornbread, along with peanut brittle, orchard fruit and a dusting of both cinnamon and anise. The fruit evokes both citrus and baked apple, and is fairly bright, though the wood profile feels younger, with musty tones and moderate impressions of sawdust.
On the palate, the first notes to pop are hot cinnamon candies and lots of tart apple. There’s an acidity to this whiskey that is nice, giving the apple a “juicy” character, along with complementary citrus tones. There’s also lots of vanilla and some florals, while cinnamon sugar gains strength over time, ultimately suggesting a baked good along the lines of a Dutch baby. The oak, at the same time, again seems to suggest the younger side of the blend, with some slightly green notes, while ethanol is fairly prickly for the 100 proof point. The final impression is of bright fruit and moderate spice notes, and an oakiness that suggests both youth and maturity.
All in all, it’s a nice profile, although with an MSRP of $135, one wonders if consumers would be wrong to expect a more mature overall profile for what they’re paying, rather than one with any younger elements. As with any LE, one questions how much of the price point is related to scarcity—Kentucky Owl has always been associated with relatively high price points, and this is no exception when looking at the specs alone. Still, those looking for a fruit-driven bourbon blend may well find this to their liking, whether or not they’re using it to celebrate the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.
Distillery: Kentucky Owl
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Blend of straight bourbon whiskeys
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $135 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.