There’s a problem in the whiskey world these days, when it comes to the automatic acceptance by the consumer of practically anything labeled as a “special” or “limited edition” release. Call it a result of rampant price gouging, or the hype cycle that assures whiskey geeks they need to be the first to acquire anything with a whiff of “rarity” to it, but the clear effect has been to incentivize distilleries (and non-distiller producers) to release as many “limited editions” as they can. And really, why wouldn’t they? If the consumer is willing to pay twice as much as they usually would for almost the same liquid, for a “limited” release, then it makes all the economic sense in the world to keep a steady flow of limited releases coming. They make money.
Traditionally, one would expect those limited releases to justify their higher price tags by pointing to the contents of the bottle. You’re expecting “rare” whiskeys to be involved in a limited release blend, or novel finishes where the consumer can rationalize “well, I’m paying for the novelty/price of a sauternes cask finish,” etc. But as the culture of limited edition releases has continued to expand unabated, it often feels like companies are barely even trying to make those limited releases seem truly unique or special. There are many potential offenders here, but I couldn’t help but feel this sentiment particularly strongly looking at the latest limited release from Kentucky Owl, Takumi Edition Bourbon.
Granted, I felt much the same about the previous, seemingly cynical St. Patrick’s Limited Edition Bourbon, and I said so at the time. That release jumped through some mental hoops in order to somehow make Kentucky bourbon an appropriate sentiment for St. Patrick’s Day, with the only tie to Ireland being the presence of an Irish blender. And with Takumi Edition, the Stoli company has done the same thing, while simply swapping in Japanese theming. And in my opinion, it’s all a bit too much. It’s not really a problem with the liquid in the bottle—though the value of that liquid is very questionable. It’s a problem with conceiving a Japanese-themed special release, but then doing the smallest amount possible to make it “special.”
Japan is a nation with a long heritage and tradition of whiskey distilling and aging, largely informed by the traditions and practices of the scotch whisky industry. But they also do have a taste for American bourbon, as whiskey geek visitors to Japan will know—the country is known among American bourbon geeks for having access to additional varieties of Buffalo Trace’s Blanton’s, for instance, and they also continued to have access to real Kentucky bourbon from Four Roses during the dark period when the brand’s American product had devolved into a shadow of its former self. So an American-Japanese bourbon collaboration does make some cultural sense. But you expect the impact of that collaboration to be more creative than what one sees in the Takumi Edition (it means “artisan”) bottle, especially with an MSRP of $150.
What we have here is a blend of 4-, 5-, 6- and 13-year-old Kentucky straight bourbons, coming from a variety of mashbills that include corn, rye, wheat and malted barley. The blend represents a collaboration between Kentucky Owl Master Blender John Rhea, and Yusuke Yahisa of Japanese distillery Nagahama, who made at least the initial steps of blending. The product was then bottled at 50% ABV (100 proof), with the previously stated $150 MSRP. It’s currently available for online pre-orders.
Is it nice to involve a distiller/blender from a Japanese distillery? Sure. Absolutely. If you’re going to do a Japanese-themed release, it’s certainly a good idea. But why stop there, and still release a product that is simply a blend of Kentucky bourbons, when there are so many other options to make a more genuine international collaboration? Why not incorporate actual Japanese-made spirit, whether that’s malt whisky or Japanese-made, bourbon-style whiskey? If not using Japanese spirits, why not give the liquid a second maturation of some kind in Japan? You could infuse it with umeshu, the traditional Japanese plum wine. You could bring in some influence from coveted Japanese mizunara oak. There’s so many options potentially available.
The most obvious and likely reason why those routes wouldn’t be explored? They’d be more expensive, and they would result in a more unique spirit, and the rank-and-file bourbon hunter doesn’t really want “unique.” They’re comfortable with bourbon as they know it, and are perfectly happy to accept limited releases that are only superficially different or distinctive. That’s where we now find ourselves.
So with that said, let’s actually go ahead and taste Kentucky Owl’s Takumi Edition Bourbon.
On the nose, this bourbon is bright and citrusy, with prominent candied orange and something akin to apricot, hinting at a pretty fruit-forward profile. I’m getting a little spicy oak on the nose as well, along with light caramel and honey, and traces of florals. Final impressions are of toasted oak and subtle cinnamon, before slightly earthier, mustier tones that also evoke mixed nuts. It’s a pleasantly fruity profile.
On the palate, Takumi Edition strikes me as a bit hotter than expected, with an ethanol heat likely derived from some of the younger bourbon in the blend, tickling the back of the throat with black pepper and chile heat. The fruit is still present, however, though it’s a bit darker in tone here, suggesting plum and more orange citrus. The oak profile seems to hint at the blend of ages, with notes running both toward greener oak and mature oak/leather. Caramel corn and black pepper provide additional flourishes, with moderate residual sweetness up front that transitions into a drier and more oak-driven finish.
All in all, this does very much taste like a fairly familiar blend of younger and older Kentucky bourbons, but with that said, it struggles badly to justify a $150 price tag. You’re paying for the novelty of the “limited edition,” but there’s almost nothing novel about that concept—a Japanese label, and the participation of a blender from Japan. You have to assume that if another company had blended together these same barrels, the product could conceivably have a price tag half as high—and even then, you’d probably be questioning the value when comparing it with everything else on the market.
And the end of the day, the point is that if a company wants to charge elevated prices for limited edition bourbon releases, they better find ways to make those releases truly stand out, in terms of the liquid in the bottle. A nice label and the participation of a guest blender are merely a start—there’s got to be more than that, if we’re going to keep using the words “special release.”
Distillery: Kentucky Owl
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Blend of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskeys
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $150 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.