There are dozens, if not hundreds of different ways to sell bourbon or rye sourced from the giant whiskey factory that is MGP of Indiana. You can bottle it as is, or blend it with your own distillate, or give it your own special finish through additional aging, or proofing it down with water you’re trying to convince the consumer is special. The market supports a seemingly endless variety of ways to drink MGP juice. But the way that drives the highest price tags and the most hype, by far, is the promise that this bottle of MGP bourbon is coming to you from a master of the art of blending. That’s what separates one company’s cask-strength MGP bourbon release from another.
Mark & Sherri Carter, of Old Carter Whiskey Co., have a substantially more impressive claim to those type of “master blender” credentials than most. They came to whiskey from the world of wine, where their Napa Valley Carter Cellar Cabernets were among the most awarded wines on the market. Wondering if perhaps they could apply that same passion for blending to American whiskey, the Carters then partnered in the creation of now-hyped whiskey brand Kentucky Owl, where they served as the original master blenders. When that brand was sold to Stoli Group in 2017, the Carter departed to create their own whiskey blending company, and Old Carter was the result.
At Old Carter, the Carters operate in much the same way as they did at Kentucky Owl, sourcing barrel proof expressions from distilleries and then blending them into unique releases. Since 2018, that has taken the form of a number of releases of bourbon, rye and “American whiskey,” which I presume probably means Tennessee Whiskey. All are released at barrel strength, although that strength varies greatly depending on the barrels themselves, from release to release.
This is my first time tasting an Old Carter product, and I’m doing it in the form of a small sample of Old Carter Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Batch #5. This batch was released simultaneously alongside Batch #4 back in April, in a batch of approximately 1,648 bottles. It has no official age statement but is reportedly 7-9 years old with a “high corn” MGP mash bill—I’m not sure why you would say “high corn” rather than “low rye,” etc—and is bottled at 115.1 proof. MSRP is a high $170, but you can be sure that price will swell on the secondary market, and perhaps on the primary as well thanks to rampant price gouging at liquor stores. Old Carter is available in limited markets, mostly Kentucky, California and Washington D.C., although the brand is working on implementing online sales in the future while they simultaneously look to build a brick and mortar tasting room in Louisville, KY.
With all that said, let’s get to tasting Old Carter Bourbon Batch #5.
On the nose, this strikes me as a well-balanced bourbon, weighing notes of warm brown sugar and gingerbread against cinnamon, faint licorice and oak that is slightly resinous in tone. Cocoa begins to emerge over time, as does a “buttered popcorn” that can probably be attributed to the higher percentage of corn in the mash bill. Ethanol is quite gentle on the nose for the proof, which bodes well for the palate.
On the palate, this is a lovely, sweet blend that the Carters have put together. Brown sugar, cinnamon and ginger candy are the first things I register, but there’s also considerable toffee and a nuttiness that is reminiscent of candied pecans. Having lived in the south, it definitely has me thinking pecan pralines. Unexpectedly, the flavor profile then morphs toward spice on the back end, reminding me very much of “cola”-type spiciness, with some muted rye as well. It definitely registers on the more sweet and decadent side, but is also quite spicy, while alcoholic heat is impressively muted, seeming to bypass attacking the palate and instead immediately settling into the chest with the good old “Kentucky hug.”
All in all, I can certainly see why the Carters have already found no shortage of devotees for their brand. Old Carter Bourbon Batch #5 is both nicely balanced and quite rich, with flavors that are both comfortingly familiar and just exotic enough to be interesting. If only I had more to sample!
Distillery: Old Carter Whiskey Co.
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 57.55% (115.1 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $170 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.