Cardinal Spirits is a Non-Distiller Producer (NDP) located in Bloomington, Indiana. They are a unique spot to visit and have a drink from their lineup of spirits that are mainly sourced from MGP. Their single barrel program has been booming lately as they offer groups or stores with a chance to taste through all of the barrels they have in stock. Lately, groups have had the choice of creating their own blends from that whiskey too.
A wild mashbill appears
For a while, Cardinal didn’t stray too far away from the standard MPG bourbon and rye whiskies. But in 2020, two unique single barrels hit the shelves in the Indianapolis area through liquor store behemoth “Big Red Liquors.” These single barrels bore the name “Perry’s Secret Stock” and claimed to use Buckwheat or Quinoa as the small grain. They were priced at $150 each which made consumers immediately pass on them. However, the specs indicated that the bourbon inside was 7 years old and the back label says it had “come out of that famous old distillery in Lawrenceburg.” It was also bottled at cask strength which was a not-insignificant 118.6 proof. Cardinal even listed the mashbill as 75% corn, 21% buckwheat and 4% malt. If you know MGP bourbon, then you recognize that this is the standard low-rye mash bill that has the rye component subbed out for buckwheat.
So who is Perry and why is this his secret stock? Perry Ford is one of the longest tenured persons working at the Lawrenceburg Distillery. He will jokingly tell people that he was selling newspapers to workers coming and going outside the front gate back when he was 8 years old and the distillery was known as Seagram’s. He would eventually get a job that saw him inspecting all of the incoming grain for the next 15 years. Then he moved on to sales and was in charge of selling all of the plants by-products (probably to local livestock farms). However, it was his role in selling barrels of whiskey shortly after Seagram’s sold off the distillery to Pernod Ricard where he earned his title as the godfather of the craft whiskey movement.
The demise of Seagram’s and the birth of the Pernod Ricard era
In the early 2000’s, the Lawrenceburg Distillery was in a crunch. It no longer had to devote all of its whiskey assets to making Seagram’s Seven. But this meant it needed to find buyers for all of the aging whiskey they had in their warehouses. Perry’s job was to cold call different operations asking them if they wanted to buy barrels. Desperate for business anywhere, he was taking orders of single barrels at a time, gradually moving dozens followed by thousands. These were all being farmed out to new craft distilleries that were trying to push out a product before they could release their own. High West, Templeton, Smooth Ambler and many more are just a few of the brands that started off in the craft scene with whiskies sourced from Indiana.
This brings us back to the present and the craft brand Cardinal Spirits. They called up Perry and asked him to locate some really wild barrels for a special release they were doing. I’m unsure how Cardinal knew that MGP had experimental barrels like this, but Perry told them that he’d find them. Lo and behold, he scrounged up barrels that used unique small grains in the mashbill. Cardinal decided the story of these barrels and this man were too good to pass up and named them in his honor.
Word on the street is that this bourbon made by a third party distiller using the specs that MGP required. The barrels were then moved to MPG to mature so they could see how they turned out. If the results were good, MPG would consider it for full scale production. I am unsure who the third party distiller was, but it does make sense that MGP did not make this themselves. If you know the size and scope of MGP’s massive column still, you’d see my point! I am assuming that MGP gave the distiller the oak barrels, yeast strain (which is the V yeast strain shared between MGP and Four Roses) and also specified it must enter the barrel at 120 proof like the rest of their products.
In 2022, I found out that Cardinal Spirits must have obtained some extra barrels of the buckwheat bourbon. I was shown a picture from a friend in Chicago and another friend in Boston where local stores are selling the same buckwheat bourbon from Cardinal Spirits but at a different proofs. So while you may not be able to find the bottle I’m reviewing today, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find it ever again. But enough about the backstory on this bottle, let’s see how it tastes! I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Very spice forward! If you’ve ever made buckwheat pancakes, you’d recognize this sharp, somewhat grainy smell immediately from the batter. The grainy scent does not register as youthful, just different. It’s a really fascinating scent that standard ryed or wheated bourbons lack. A bit of citrus shines through coupled with unsweetened blackberries and lingonberries.
Palate: A really bready spice similar to pumpernickel bread greets your tongue. Waves of spice wash over my tongue mixing the grainy, spicy nature of buckwheat with the sweet simplicity of bourbon. The mouthfeel is thick and oily and the whole dram keeps a somewhat steady level of sweetness throughout the sip. Complexity comes by way of the multiple spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and tamarind) that are found rather than different flavors like tannins or fruits. Speaking of fruits, some can be found but they’re mostly along the line of sweetened stone fruits (apricots and plums).
Finish: The finish is somewhat earthy which pairs well with the unique spices found within. The tannins make themselves known after the sip is complete with small amounts of leather and oak present. I find the sweetness to taste more like molasses than anything else. The finish could be considered as kind of dry, but it’s really just all that spice that is making it seem so.
Unique is the best word to describe a bourbon like this. There is scarcely a trait in common with MGP’s own distillate (no brown sugar, no butter, no pine needles), but that’s fine with me! The oily mouthfeel could be a result of this bourbon not being chill filtered but I also think that the pot still it was made on contributed more than we know. Overall, this bourbon is one that needs to be experienced to fully appreciate how different it is.
There is probably a reason that buckwheat isn’t used more commonly as a small grain. Could it be cost? Availability? Or maybe it’s hard to work with in the fermenting process? I’m not sure but I could see a niche market for this kind of bourbon. It would be for the enthusiasts that love a nice, spicy rye whiskey but find themselves a little bored of the current offerings. It might not be for everybody, but it’s still a whiskey I enjoyed.
In the end, I think this is a bottle that derives its value from the name on the front. Even though I don’t personally know who Perry Ford is, I do know how highly he is thought of amongst his coworkers and people in the Industry. Owing to that legendary status is also a man who has worked at the same place (even before he was actually employed by that place) for all of his life. That’s commitment we just don’t see these days. As the back of the label says “This one’s for you, Perry.”
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