Awakening a Bourbon With a Past

Known as “The Wise Man’s Bourbon,” Kentucky Owl was one of Kentucky’s original bourbon brands, with roots hailing back to the pre-prohibition era. Founder and local pharmacist Charles Mortimer Dedman opened C.M. Dedman Distillery under bond #16 in 1879, and for decades many enjoyed Kentucky Owl. Then prohibition, inventory confiscation, the mob, and a mysterious warehouse fire (inside job?) brought the brand to an end.


As Prohibition loomed, distilleries found themselves with large inventories of their spirits. It’s reported that Kentucky Owl had about 250,000 gallons of bourbon seized by federal agents in 1916. (The value of which in today’s market would be in the ballpark of $40 million.) The bourbon was transported to Frankfort for “safekeeping” in a warehouse. That’s where the mysterious fire comes in — supposedly burning the warehouse and the entire inventory to the ground. Kentucky Owl would then lie dormant for 98 years.


Fast-forward to current day and Charles’s great, great-grandson, Dixon Dedman. New master-blender, Dixon who resurrected The Wise Man’s Bourbon in 2015 has created one of the most coveted bourbons of our era.

As with the introduction of any spirit comes the need for bottling and labeling. Tony Auston, of Auston Design Group, had the pleasure of refreshing the existing new era label and refining the look for this historic brand. With Kentucky Owl’s instant success it became clear that the brand needed a more refined and detailed package that captured its legacy and heritage, while at the same time retained a small batch, craft-distiller aesthetic.


From left to right: Historical pre-prohibition label, new era bourbon label used for 2014 launch, redesigned label for the 2017 introduction of Rye, and updated 2018 bourbon.

“Each part of the label was reimagined, improved and enhanced to reflect the premium quality of what’s in the bottle. As stewards of this historic brand, our challenge was twofold: First, improve and accentuate every element of the current package, while taking care to maintain core brand equities, and second, design for brand expansion, which includes the new Kentucky Rye Whiskey,” said Auston.


The custom brand mark, iconic owl illustration, and border system are designed to be the graphic constants of the Kentucky Owl brand. These brand identity icons will act as anchors to new elements that might surround them on any future product offerings. Additionally, to more effectively communicate Kentucky Owl’s story and exclusivity, the information was subtly reorganized to highlight the established date, batch, and bottle numbers, along with the distillation and bottling location.


“Other than a few lines of computer set type we used detailed hand lettering and hand-drawn illustrations, as it would have been designed in the late 1800s. A hand-sculpted embossing die was used for the owl illustration and the brand mark,” said Auston. Familiar with its highly-tactile surface and high-production qualities, Auston specified his go-to label stock, ESTATE LABEL® No. 3, Ultra White Felt  by Neenah, as a way to add an authentic look and feel, reminiscent of the era.


(Hand-lettered type studies for the introduction of Kentucky Owl Rye Whiskey.)


The Kentucky Owl Rye Whiskey was the first to use Auston’s redesigned label, first appearing on shelves in the fall of 2017.


The new Batch No. 8 Kentucky straight bourbon package has just been released in limited locations.

“This is a premium spirit and one of the most coveted bourbons of our era. There are expectations that go along with that honor. Collectors and connoisseurs expect important information communicated on the label. We reorganized these elements, so as to highlight the established date, batch and bottle numbers, and distillation and bottling location — important pieces of information for the most distinguished consumer,” said Auston.

Check out the Kentucky Owl website to learn more about the brand’s interesting history, and what Al Capone may, or may not, have had to do with it.

The labels were printed at Multi-Color’s Napa, CA location, on an HP Indigo 6600 digital press. DeCrevel Die of Napa created the detailed hand sculpted embossing dies.