KENTUCKY OWL RYE
Batch 3 (2019)
MASH BILL – unstated Kentucky rye mash bill(s)
PROOF – 114
AGE – 10 years
DISTILLERY – Kentucky Owl (sourcing)
PRICE – $150 (in trade; msrp was ~$180)
OLD CARTER RYE
Batch 9 (2021)
MASH BILL – unstated MGP rye mash bill(s)
PROOF – 116.4
AGE – NAS
DISTILLERY – Old Carter (sourcing)
PRICE – $175
The reason to compare these ryes is less to do with the whiskeys in the bottles than with their connected origin stories. Both brands were started by Mark and Sherri Carter, and their respective packaging reflects the Carters’ distinct sensibility for presentation.
Initially, Kentucky Owl was publicly helmed primarily by the Carters’ business partner in the brand, Dixon Dedman, owner of the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, KY. Dedman’s family owned and operated the Kentucky Owl brand from 1879 until Prohibition closed it down. Dedman and the Carters were discussing the possibility of creating a wine brand for the Beaumont. But the Carters pressed the idea of reviving the Dedman family whiskey label.
Long story short, in 2014 Kentucky Owl Bourbon Batch 1 was released. In addition to Sherri Carter designing the unique antiquey label, she and husband Mark Carter worked closely with Dedman to source and blend the whiskey. More releases followed. But when the Stoli corporation bought the Kentucky Owl brand in 2017, the Carters parted ways with it to start their own small scale high-end brand, Old Carter. In 2018 the Carters released their first batch of Old Carter, and each subsequent batch has been highly sought after.
Meanwhile, interest in Kentucky Owl seems to have waned a bit since the Stoli takeover. I’m not privy to sales figures, of course. But anecdotally, I see less excitement about it on the various whiskey social media groups I follow. Reviews for post-2017 batches have been more uneven on average. And Stoli has moved the brand in a more cost-friendly direction with the introduction of their Wiseman bourbon and rye lines, both sourced but featuring distinctly different labels than what Sherri Carter had originally designed.
So, really, the only connection between the Carters and Kentucky Owl Rye Batch 3—produced two years after they left the brand—is its label design. The Kentucky Owl and Old Carter flavor profiles are obviously distinct, blended by different people sourcing from different distilleries in separate regions. So why compare them?
In addition to overlapping origins, the brands come from like impulses: acquire choice barrels of high-quality, well-aged rye (the Old Carter is NAS, but the color and taste suggest some decent aged whiskeys in the mix), blend them with a nose for luxury, and sell them accordingly at luxury prices.
That’s it, really. This will be a comparison about differences. And then there’s the question of what in a flavor profile justifies luxury prices. It’s a subjective question, of course, so I won’t attempt anything in the way of objectivity here. For me it’s more a matter of open-ended curiosity than attempting to fashion a fixed conclusion around consumer questions, though naturally I have thoughts in that regard.
So let’s get to it. The Old Carter has been open now for about two months and I’m heading into the bottle’s final third. The Kentucky Owl has been open two weeks and I’m on the third pour. Both were tasted in traditional Glencairns.
OWL – quite a vibrant range, from brassy yellow highlights to dark russet oranges
CARTER – a similar sunset spectrum, without fading quite as far into the darker oranges
OWL – sweet herbaceous rye spices, vanilla and caramel, oak and dark chocolate, a fine sprinkling of baking spices like when they’re well mixed into the cinnamon roll dough
CARTER – rye spices emphasizing fresh dill, oak, crystalizing honey, finely ground black pepper, some tart apricot preserves
OWL – peppery up front and on the backend, with dark rye spices and chocolate in between
CARTER – those fresh and sunny herbal rye notes, slightly drying, a peppery bite on swallowing
OWL – a lingering peppery tingle that’s slightly numbing on the lips, with mint coated in dark chocolate
CARTER – that lingering peppery bite slowly releasing its grip, with the dill-heavy rye spices, some sweet caramel
OWL – herbal, dark, chocolatey
CARTER – herbal, bright, caramelly
OWL – With the money long since “spent” in a bottle trade, this question is well past its Best By date for me; I wouldn’t buy it now at msrp or higher, but I will enjoy this bottle for its chocolatey qualities in particular…
CARTER – No, for the same reasons I wrote about before; But like the Kentucky Owl, I have no doubt I’ll enjoy what’s left in this bottle…
In the wake of this tasting, it’s now striking me more as a broad comparison between Kentucky and Indiana. It’s an easy guess that the Old Carter comes from MGP, for which there are numerous other similar tasting references to compare—e.g. Sagamore 8-Year, Hughes Belle of Bedford, many a Willett… The Kentucky rye in the Owl is more difficult to place. The chocolatey aspects remind me of some Knob Creek Rye experiences, especially certain single barrels. Jim Beam is rumored to part with a lot of whiskey, bottled uncredited per contractual agreements by non-distiller producers across the country. Beam makes a likely candidate.
But these are details I’ll never know, so, the guessing game is a bit academic. The primary answer to the question of difference here is the chocolate aspect, and the dark/light qualities of the aromas, flavors, and color. Otherwise, and even considering those differences, they offer quite similar experiences overall, emphasizing in their respective ways an array of herbaceous rye spice notes. The reason to reach for one versus the other will be according to my mood. Feeling like something darker? Kentucky Owl. Something sunnier? Old Carter. Something rich and vibrant and flavorful? Flip a coin.
I got into my inner-wrestling with the phenomenon of luxury whiskey brands in my earlier post on the Old Carter, so I won’t do that again here. In summation, I’ll simply say that these both taste great, they both taste familiar, and, for me, neither are worth their msrp. They’re certainly not worth secondary prices. There are simply too many options out there now at better prices, offering comparable quality.
And there’s something very freeing about that. It means that if I have intel on the origins of a brand like these before buying in, and I can reasonably estimate whether it will be yet another among many excellent MGP rye experiences or something akin to the better of those Knob Creek Rye single barrels, then I can pass on the luxury bottle with no fear that I’m missing out on anything actually special or unique. I might be missing out on something good, maybe even something great. But if I come to find that out, I can just pour a glass of Sagamore 8-Year and enjoy the sun setting on another day of the whiskey journey…