Originally released in the 1990’s under the name “The Original Cowboy” with a less flashy label, the “Cowboy Little Barrel” brand was popular in the late 90’s / early 2000’s as an export-only line of premium aged bourbons and ryes. The unique products under this brand were easily identified by a small piece of burlap fabric covering the bottle cork, a large star-studded rodeo cowboy on the front label, and a few high quality oblong bottle designs.
The brand was owned and managed by Marci Palatella of Allied Lomar, the California producer behind other highly popular lines such as Very Old St. Nick, Pure Antique, and Rare Perfection. Like those brands, American Cowboy was also bottled by Even Kulsveen at KBD/Willett from premium bourbon and rye stocks sourced elsewhere and aged at KBD. The bourbon source was likely aged Heaven Hill and the ryes were likely aged Old Bernheim. Both are premium pours and I would rank the aged ryes in this series on par with some of the best aged ryes from that time period.
The full American Cowboy lineup that I’ve located consists of 5 bourbons (blue labels) and 3 rye whiskies (brown labels). The bottle shapes vary between releases with the older bourbons being the most elaborate and the younger ryes being more traditional. There were rumored to be less than 10,000 total bottles released for the brand and those were only sold overseas. Of that original distribution, it’s likely that only a few hundred still exist today, so this isn’t a bottle that turns up frequently at auctions. Bourbon enthusiasts tend to prefer the 17 year bourbon, while rye enthusiasts give high marks to the 18 year 101-proof rye. The 14 year rye and 12 year bourbon are also very popular among those familiar with the brand.
According to USPTO Trademark filings, the brand name was first used in commerce on 08/31/1995. The company then applied for a trademark to protect the name in 2001. Their trademark was approved in 2003 and then the brand disappeared entirely in 2005. The brand surfaced again 2016/2017 when Allied Lomar sued Texas-based Garrison Bros. / Lone Star Distillery over their use of the name “Cowboy Bourbon”. Allied Lomar felt that Garrison Bros’ “Cowboy Bourbon” name infringed on their trademarked name “Cowboy Little Barrel”. The case went to trial and the jury disagreed with Allied Lomar, pointing out that the “Cowboy Little Barrel” brand disappeared in 2005 and was different enough in branding as to avoid any consumer confusion.
It should also be noted that the term “Little Barrel” is actually part of the brand name and has nothing to do with the size of the barrels used for aging the whiskey. The owner of this label, Allied Lomar, was known for experimenting with slightly misleading marketing terms like “micro bourbon”, “small barrel”, and “little barrel” that have no legal meaning and could be used without ramification to differentiate the product in the market. The actual process behind the scenes wasn’t modified at all. The whiskey was aged in normal 52 gallon bourbon barrels and not in the smaller barrels that are popular today.
Allied was also known for intentionally excluding the terms “Kentucky” or “Straight” on their early labels in favor of the more basic “bourbon whiskey” or “rye whiskey” terminology. This is likely because they were sourcing and marrying various barrels to create their unique bourbons and some combinations may not have qualified to use those full designations. Rather than create unique labels for each brand, it was likely easier to just use the less restrictive label terminology.
Oddly, despite it’s reputable background, many modern bourbon and rye enthusiasts aren’t aware of the American Cowboy bourbon or rye brands at all. I compare it to other brands like Barrett & Co. or Cousin Elvis that are amazing bourbons with rich pedigrees, but remain relatively unknown because they weren’t produced in great volumes so they don’t appear on secondary markets or group tastings often enough to generate buzz, and the labels are misleading to modern enthusiasts who often mistake them for small-barrel craft whiskies.
If you happen to come across these at auction or on secondary sales sites, I highly encourage you to pick one up. If you like drinking the old premium bottles that KBD/Willett or JVW bottled in the 90’s and 2000’s, you’ll love these. And unless you’re bidding against the small group of people who actually know about this brand, chances are you’ll be able to pick them up at bargain prices compared to other bottles with this type of pedigree.
Note: This brand experienced a small reboot in 2016/2017 and marketed bottles under the “Cowboy Little Barrel” brand in the US. The rebooted brand has a completely different logo, sourced product, and bottle style. This reboot was likely a result of the lawsuit with Garrison Bros which required Allied Lomar to show an intent to re-use the brand. Allied relaunched the brand as an American Whiskey to prove this re-use intent, but the courts didn’t allow the new bottles to be entered as evidence because the brand was launched post-filing. Since then, the relaunched bottles have slowly disappeared from shelves. That said, Allied Lomar recently opened a small distillery in Bardstown, KY called “Preservation Distillery” and may plan to continue using this brand in the future.
“The lonely life of the American Cowboy. Heroes of the old frontier, life was spent riding riding the range, and singing a sad country song. Their only company a horse and a good bottle of whiskey. We honor this tradition by demanding the finest of ingredients for our handcrafted whiskey and guarantee all to be aged in small charred oak barrels for a full smooth finish.”
Producer: Allied Lomar / Old St. Nick Distillery
Likely Distiller: Heaven Hill (bourbon); Old Bernheim (rye)
Bottler: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers / Willett
Assumed Name: Cowboy Little Barrel Distillery
Importer(s): Nippon Foods GmbH, Norcal (Nippon) Co.
Designation: Bourbon Whiskey, Rye Whiskey
Release Category: Extinct
When Available: 1995 – 2005
Market: Japan, Europe
Bottle Size(s): 750ml
Brand Awareness: Relatively Unknown
Trading Tier: Med-High among experts; Med-Low elsewhere
Proof(s): 90 – 101
Age(s): 8yr – 25yr
- Bourbon – 25 years old, 80 Proof, 750ml
- Bourbon – 20 years old, 86 Proof, 750ml
- Bourbon – 17 years old, 86mProof, 750ml
- Bourbon – 14 years old, 86 Proof, 750ml
- Bourbon – 12 years old, 86 Proof, 750ml
- Rye – 18 years old, 101 Proof, 750ml
- Rye – 14 years old, 80 Proof, 750ml
- Rye – 8 years old, 80 Proof, 750ml
“The Original Cowboy” release that preceeded these releases was available in a 12 year old, 90 proof, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey version with a similar description that read “The Lonely Life of an American Cowboy. Heros of the old frontier, their life was spent on horseback riding the range alone, working and singing a sad country song; their only company a horse and a good bottle of Bourbon.”