Editor’s Note: This whisk(e)y was provided to us as a review sample by the party behind it. This in no way, per our editorial policies, influenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy link towards the bottom of this review our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.
There are two kinds of whiskey drinkers: You know what you like and you’re perfectly happy with that when you drink; or you’re the curious type always wondering what new twist some distiller is going to throw at you. Fortunately for the curious, the boom in whiskey sales (and prices) in the 2000s has provided distillers with a lot of incentive to innovate.
The Kentucky Owl Takumi Edition limited-release bourbon certainly falls into that category. John Rhea, who joined Kentucky Owl as master blender in 2021 after a storied career at Four Roses, picked four of Kentucky Owl’s bourbons – aged 4, 5, 6, and 13 years – and shipped the barrels to master blender Yahisa Yusuke at the Nagahama Distillery 200 miles southwest of Tokyo. Yusuke sampled the barrels and blended them in the proportions he thought would create a flavor profile more closely matching a Japanese palate than an American one.
So, it’s Kentucky bourbon blended in Japan to appeal to drinkers of Japanese whiskies. But here’s the thing: Most Japanese whiskies are made from barley, with a family resemblance to Scotch rather than bourbon. Bourbon, of course, is corn whiskey aged in new American oak. The two start from fundamentally different places.
The Takumi Edition marks the second time in a year that Rhea has used his deep industry connections to identify an overseas partner with whom to collaborate on a limited release. In March, Kentucky Owl released the St. Patrick’s Edition in conjunction with Louise McGuane from J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey.
My The Whiskey Wash colleague Suzanne Bayard gave the St. Patrick’s Edition 4 stars out of 5, so I was curious to see if Rhea and Kentucky Owl could repeat their success with the Takumi Edition.
Tasting notes: Kentucky Owl Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Takumi Edition
Vital stats: Four-, five-, six- and 13-year-old Kentucky bourbon shipped to Japan’s Nagahama Distillery and blended there; Kentucky Owl says the mashbills include corn, rye or wheat, and malted barley, but didn’t provide proportions; 100 proof/50% alcohol by volume; $150 for a 750 ml bottle.
Appearance: Tawny color, with a satiny consistency and relatively solid legs on the side of the glass.
Nose: Smooth vanilla with a hint of rye bread. The bourbon sweetness is there, but it’s understated.
Palate: The rye-bread spice I detected in the nose was largely gone by the time I took a drink. This is a relaxed and comfortable bourbon, in the sense that no overwhelming tastes push their way to the front. It settled at the back of my palate, with molasses, brown sugar, and baked pears drizzled with caramel. The finish is long and luxurious. I don’t know if it comes from the inclusion of 13-year-old bourbon or something in the production or blending process, but a chewy mouthfeel was noticeable. The satiny pour I observed earlier became a satiny feel in the mouth.
Whiskey Review: Kentucky Owl Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Takumi Edition
A friend of mine is a Japanese whisky expert who owns a collection of whiskies from the island. He and I shared the Kentucky Owl bottle recently, asking ourselves whether shipping Kentucky bourbon to Japan for blending was more than a gimmick. Would we actually be able to detect a hint of the Japanese sensibility? It’s hard to say in the final analysis, but we both liked the Takumi Edition and decided it does have an understated sensibility that would be at home in Japan. Japanese whiskies have a tendency to be crisp, clean, and light, while bourbon is often more in-your-face with sweet and strong flavors.
We opted to give Nagahama’s Yahisa Yusuke credit for helping shape a whiskey that reflects the tendency toward crisp, clean, and light. And Kentucky Owl’s John Rhea credit for sending him high-quality bourbon in the first place.
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Scott Bernard Nelson
Scott Bernard Nelson is a writer, actor and whiskey reviewer in Portland, Ore. When he's not working, you can often find him fly fishing or rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest.