I’ve often joked that Louisville’s effort to build bourbon tourism as a gigantic revenue source looks like a plan to turn Louisville into an urban version of the Napa Valley.
Since the late 1800s, Napa has lured tourists to come visit wineries, learn about wine, taste the stuff and, not incidentally, spend time and money at local eateries, taverns and hotels. Who could blame our city government and business leaders for wanting to do something like that too, only with bourbon?
Great concept. But is it working? I wasn’t sure until I met Mark Joseph Carter, owner of California’s Carter Cellars at Envy Winery. Carter is a Napa wine maker who came to Kentucky to make bourbon, and he currently runs the Old Carter bourbon brand.
Carter, a native of Eureka, California and host of the highly regarded Carter House Inns there, got into the wine business around 20 years ago. Working with respected wine maker Nils Venge, he sourced grapes from top Napa Vineyards to blend a rich, strong, double-oaked and barrel-aged Carter Cellars wine that earned leading wine critic Robert Parker’s 100-point rating. That sent Carter Cellars wines into the popularity and price stratosphere.
“It’s been quite a journey,” he said. Along the way, he had made a Kentucky connection through the innkeepers’ trade. Traveling the country years ago as head of an innkeepers’ trade association, he met Chuck Dedman, then owner of Harrodsburg’s historic Beaumont Inn.
“Chuck used to talk about how they once made a bourbon, Kentucky Owl. But the government took it away during Prohibition, destroyed all the bourbon, and they never got a plugged nickel. When I heard that story I never forgot it.”
After Chuck Dedman died, his son Dixon Dedman took over Beaumont Inn as its fifth generation owner. Dixon Dedman asked Carter if he would produce a house wine for sale in the Beaumont Inn’s dining room, but Carter had a better idea.
“I told Dixon, ‘I’d do that for him and his family, but your dad told me we used to make bourbon. Why don’t we bring your brand back?’ He said, ‘Can we do that?’ I told him we can do anything we want to. We’re used to doing this with wine, we know how to be in compliance with federal regulations.”
So working together, seeking out and blending choice barrels, they brought to bear some of the same methods that had impressed Robert Parker in Carter Cellars’ wines: “The first thing we did was double oak and more char. We got the barrels and made our first Kentucky Owl in 2016.”
Carter wanted to grow the brand, but then came a knock on the door. Someone wanted to buy the brand. Carter said he wanted to turn down the offer and nurture Kentucky Owl, but Dixon, 30 years younger and newly a father, chose to sell to the Stoli Group, take the money and invest in his family’s future.
“I agreed to sell for Dixon,” Carter said, “But I could start another brand. So in 2017 I bought some barrels and started over.”
He used the same format, doubling the usual oak treatment. He located good older barrels of bourbon aging in rick houses around the state to blend with new bourbon that he distilled in Frankfort and Danville.
“We’re blenders primarily,” he said, “but we do some distilling too.”
Now in the process of restoring three adjacent 19th century buildings on Market Street just a block south of Whiskey Row, he says he has produced nearly 100 separate “expressions” of very-small batch bourbon and rye under the Old Carter name, with labels designed by his wife Sherri, an artist and writer and whiskey maker.
Meanwhile, they’re learning to love Louisville. “It’s a great community and has really accepted us,” he said. “I’m sure bourbonism is going to grow. It’s good for the community, young people in Louisville are embracing it, and people are proud of what they’re producing. A lot of new jobs have opened up. For us, we want to do a premium product always, do the best we can and do it with integrity.”
I was able to spend a few minutes sniffing, sipping, and savoring a little taste of Old Carter Very Small Batch 1-OC straight bourbon whiskey, a warming potion indeed at 117.6 proof barrel strength. It’s definitely an impressive bourbon, lofting up abundant caramel, raisin and sweet fruit scents.
At an average U.S. retail price of $595 according to the online database at Wine-Searcher.com, this potion is well above my budget. If you’re interested, though, Old Carter distributes to seven states including Kentucky, and can be found, while it lasts, in local liquor shops and back bars. Or watch Old Carter’s Facebook and Instagram pages for announcements of occasional “pop-up” sales of new bottlings.
The Main Street shop isn’t open to the public for tasting or tours, but if you’re a serious fan, there’s still space in the Old Carter Social Club. For $100 a month, members are given a locker in Old Carter’s comfortable tasting rooms, first preference to buy at least six new releases annually, and the opportunity to taste the new releases with club director Brian Booth.
How does making bourbon compare with making wine? “In some ways I like it a little better,” Carter said, “because with bourbon you don’t have to wait for that one day a year that’s perfect to make wine, and Mother Nature can slap you down hard. You don’t need to worry about bud break or harvest or fire season.”
Reminiscing over a tiny portion of his potion in a tasting glass, Carter smiled and said, “I have been very lucky to be able to enjoy my work and have fun while I’m doing it!”
Keep Louisville interesting and support LEO Weekly by subscribing to our newsletter here. In return, you’ll receive news with an edge and the latest on where to eat, drink and hang out in Derby City.