Archive for category Rye
Age: 6 y/o
Style: Kentucky Rye
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan State Minimum: $40
Note: Two person review!
A: Friend of the Blog, Amy
J: Pale copper, with spotty legs.
A: Light, bright gold with hard-to-find legs.
J: Oak, peanut butter, alcohol, barrel char, bubble gum. Changes a lot in the glass.
A: Mild rye aroma, hint of grass and mint.
On the palate
J: Medium bodied and sweet. Oak, fruity hard candy, burn, butterscotch.
A: Light bodied with soft mouth feel. Very sweet but with kick.
J: Leather, cumin, coriander and a lingering sweetness.
A: Rye much more present in the finish than on the palate.
A: Having met Jimmy Russell in person, I am always happy to sample his wares. It’s not a rye that hits you over the head with rye. I like it.
J: I’ll try to elaborate on Amy’s minimalist remarks. Russell’s Reserve Rye was one of the first ryes I really loved. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Rittenhouse and had affairs with Sazerac and Willet and my horizons have broadened. Still, I think this is a good solid rye whiskey, albeit overpriced. Although it was never one of my favorites, now that Wild Turkey Rye 101 proof has been debased into the 81 proof swill, Russell’s Reserve is the only label under which one can get a drinkable rye whiskey from Wild Turkey. As such and because it tastes good, Russell’s Reserve Rye is recommended.
Distiller: Likely MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA
Style: High rye rye, finished in Caribbean rum casks.
Proof: 100 (50% ABV)
Thanks to Oscar for help in obtaining this bottle and Amy for splitting it with me.
Appearance: Pale copper
Nose: Butter rum, carrot cake, almond brittle.
On the palate: Medium bodied, sweet and spicy. Fruitcake (the good, homemade kind), crystallized ginger, allspice, nutmeg, clove, mace, molasses.
Finish: More spice cake with a good bit of alcoholic burn. Clears out the sinuses and the sweetness lingers on the tongue and lips.
Parting words: This is another special release from this year that I have delayed reviewing in typical Sipology style. When it was announced that Angel’s Envy was releasing a rye, I was skeptical. When I heard the price, I was even more skeptical. When I tasted it, I was no longer skeptical.
This is a whiskey unlike any I have ever had and in a very good way. The rum flavors are very up front and they meld in an effortless way with the spice of the high-rye recipe rye to create a whiskey that is like drinking a 100 proof spice cake. It’s just an amazing product, albeit a very expensive one. It sold for $70 or more when it was to be found but it’s worth every penny and then some. There may be a few on shelves still, so if you see one, buy it. This is an amazing whiskey. Highly recommended.
In lieu of a whiskey review this Friday, I’d like to share some of the results of a fun outing with a friend to hear a veteran of the American whiskey industry.
Wednesday afternoon I received a text message from Amy of Bonne Amie Knits reminding me that Dave Pickerell (Maker’s Mark Master Distiller for 14 years) was making an appearance at The Sugar House, a cocktail bar in Detroit, that evening. If I ever knew about it I had completely forgotten, so I stuffed my mouth full of my dinner and we made our way down as soon as we could. The drink special that night was $3 shots of Maker’s and $4 shots of Maker’s 46 which was a damn good deal so I had a few.
Dave spoke and took questions for about two hours. He told stories and talked about his time at Maker’s and his time since 2008 acting as a consultant and Master Distiller at Whistle Pig, George Washington’s Distillery at Mt. Vernon and Hillrock Estate. Amy scored points when she asked what it was like working with George Washington. I tried to get Dave to reveal the source of WhistlePig but he didn’t fall for it (I’m still going with Alberta). I also asked him if he had thoughts on the Maker’s Mark proof reduction fiasco, and he did. He was in town doing some work with the Two James distillery in the Corktown area of Detroit (near where Tiger Stadium used to be, and a few blocks from the bar).
Instead of trying to recount everything he said as he said it, here are some highlights by topic:
-Dave won the Kentucky Bourbon Festival cocktail contest three years in a row, but the first cocktail he invented turned out to be an old cocktail that already had its own name, The Ward Eight. The third one he invented was supposed to be a cross between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. When Gary Regan tasted it, he said it wasn’t an old fashioned or a Manhattan but it was good anyway. He named it the Pickerell, but Dave had nothing to do with that since he doesn’t like to put his name on things.
-The bulk whiskey market (excess aged whiskey distillers will sell when they need to have it) is the tightest he’s even seen. The oldest whiskey available on the bulk/spot market is 15 months old. Basically, there is none to be had.
-Dave used to be a big stickler on drinking his bourbon neat but while working at Maker’s he came to the conclusion nobody has the right to tell anybody how they should drink their bourbon.
-He slowly sipped on a Maker’s sour while he was talking.
-Dave on microdistillers making whiskey: “Eventually, it’s going to have to taste good.”
-Dave thinks the microdistillers are driving innovation right now. This is because they aren’t as constrained by the need to sell thousands of cases of a product to make it successful like the big producers are. For many micros, 100 cases sold of any product counts as a success. This means the costs of experimentation are much lower.
-He had never worked with rye before working at Mt. Vernon. The first time he made a batch there he noticed a little foam was forming on top while the rye was fermenting. So he put a sheet of plastic over the top of the fermenter and put a couple pieces of wood and a brick on top before he left the distillery for the day. The next morning when he walked into the room where the fermenter was the brick and wood were on the floor as was a two foot layer of foam. They lost that batch.
-The mix of whiskey from all the Kentucky distilleries Mt. Vernon released tasted terrible.
-The Mt. Vernon Rye currently being released is distilled at Hillrock in New York because it’s easier to do it in a more modern facility. The working conditions are pretty primitive at Mt. Vernon.
-Hillrock is currently making the world’s first ever Solera aged bourbon.
Other Master Distillers
-He didn’t know Elmer T. Lee well but said he was a gentleman and active at BT practically until the day he died. He had a greater impact on the bourbon industry than anybody else in his lifetime.
-He thinks BT should change the proof of ETL to 93 in honor of Elmer’s age when he passed away.
-Jimmy Russell is a good friend of Dave’s and has been a mentor to him throughout his career.
-Jimmy taught him the importance of pausing for a photo op (see below).
-Once Dave and Jimmy were at tasting. A guy got up and made a big show of swirling his bourbon in his glass, sipping it slowly and announcing that he tasted blackberries, winter fruit, leather and many other obscure flavors. Jimmy leaned over to Dave and said, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t put any of that shit in my bourbon!” Both then starting laughing hysterically, disrupting the tasting. [This story has made the rounds for a long time]
-Bill Samuels Jr. is one of the most brilliant men he’s ever met.
-Bill knows next to nothing about making bourbon but is a masterful marketer.
-Before Dave worked at Maker’s he worked at an engineering firm that did some work for Maker’s. Dave didn’t like the way the way the company handled the business with Maker’s and told Maker’s about what happened. Later when Dave was in Loretto, Bill came up to him and said, “Did you know we are currently looking for a new Master Distiller?” Dave said, “No.” Bill said, “We are plum out of candidates and we didn’t like any of them. We like you, though. The job is yours if you want it.” He accepted and the next day told his former boss he was quitting and also that Maker’s was no longer going to be using that company’s services.
-He said the MM shortage is very real. He thinks the proof change was the right move to make and he is disappointed that they caved to public pressure. In his opinion the problem is not capacity but the surprising growth of the brand in the midst of a deep recession. Nobody expected that and so nobody planned on increasing production to meet that growth.
-He predicts that since the proof change was rolled back there will be “rolling shortages” of MM around the world.
After the formal talk was over he milled around for a while, chatting with the bar patrons and a couple old friends who showed up from Allied Domecq, former owner of Maker’s Mark (the company was acquired by Pernod-Ricard in 2005 with Maker’s being sold off to Beam).
Amy and I stayed at the bar and had a nice chat with Pete from Two James. They have a lot of exciting things planned including a vodka, gin and a Madeira finished bourbon. After we were done at the bar we took a stroll down Michigan Avenue and took a look at Two James.
Some photos from the evening:
Distillers: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana (6 y/o, 95% rye component) & Barton-1792, Bardstown, Kentucky (16 y/o, 80% Rye component)
Style: Indiana style rye whiskey (high rye)
Age: 6 y/o (but blended with a 16 y/o)
Proof: 92 (46% ABV)
Appearance: Copper with a pinkish hue. Slightly cloudy.
Nose: Cedar, barbecue sauce, fresh cut grass.
On the palate: Medium bodied and soft. Dry with some spearmint. Water brings out a gentle sweetness to balance out the grassiness. Thyme, caramel, allspice, ginger.
Finish: Light, with a little sweetness but mostly tarragon and burn. Some char comes through and then softly fades. Much the same with water, but the burn has been transformed into a pleasant tingle.
Mixed: Very tasty in a Sazerac. Didn’t try it in anything else.
Parting Words: Rendezvous Rye was the first (or at least one of the first) products to be released by High West. The source material has shifted since that first bottling, but Rendezvous has been HW’s most consistant, and to me, most successful product. The tangy ketchup notes that plague Son of Bourye are here too, but they are kept firmly in the background by caramel and herbal flavors and aromas. Through prudent barrel selection and judicious mingling of ryes of two different styles, High West as created a rye that is very much worth seeking out. With rye supplies tightening, I hope they can continue to keep Rendezvous at an affordable price and at its current level of quality. Rendezvous Rye is recommended.
Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA
Style: High rye rye whiskey (I am now dubbing this Indiana style rye)
Age: 4 y/o
Proof: 110 (55% ABV)
Appearance: Fairly dark copper with thick legs.
Nose: Pine sap, oak, caramel, tarragon, alcohol, woodruff.
On the palate: Full bodied. Sweet and herbaceous, then hot. With a splash of water, the resemblance to Bulleit rye is very apparent. Sweet caramel, hay and spearmint.
Finish: Burn and a little caramel, then it’s all starlight mints. Lasts for almost as long as one of those would in the mouth! With some water, tarragon and basil come out and settle into licorice before gently fading away.
Parting words: The Willett ryes being released at increasing ages every year are from the same Indiana distillery supplying Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, Redemption Rye and many others. The differences being that the Willetts are all at barrel proof and are single barrel selections. They are not available in Michigan, but are fairly easy to find in Kentucky and Indiana. At over $30, they’re not cheap but these are at barrel strength so one is getting more for one’s money. If 110 proof is too high for you, that’s why God made water.
Anyhow, Willett Family Estate Rye is the finest example of Indiana Rye I have tasted to date. For something that is almost entirely rye and is only 4 years old, it has a good deal going on. I wouldn’t call it complex, but it’s more balanced than many of its siblings and it is a much better value than Templeton or High West’s Double Rye. I enjoy Kentucky “barely legal” style rye better, but if rye character is what you crave, Willett Rye is recommended.
Style: High Rye Rye (Bottled-in-Bond)
Proof: 100 (50% ABV)
Appearance: Burnt orange.
Nose: Caramel, alcohol, potpourri, pine.
On the palate: Medium bodied and a little hot. Caramel, tarragon, Thai basil, cumin, coriander.
Finish: Oak, alcohol, leather, dried flowers.
Parting words: This is Buffalo Trace’s stab at a high rye rye whiskey. It is made using rye and a small amount of malted barley, but no corn. The result is something spicier and with more rye character than their Sazerac line of rye whiskeys, but not as far over the line as the 100% rye whiskeys being sourced from Canada like Whistlepig, Jefferson’s, etc. It’s more elegant than those or the MGPI ryes like Bulleit and Willett. The caramel flavors (a bit surprising given the absence of corn) and oak keep the rye from overrunning things.
As with the rest of the Col. Taylor line, price is a problem. Even accounting for the relative scarcity of straight rye, $70 is too much for this. At $10-$20 less Taylor rye would be a sure-fire recommendation, but as it is, it’s only mildly recommended.
Recently I, as a (part-time) whiskey blogger, have been urged to take up the banner and “give Maker’s Mark shit” for lowering the proof of their bourbon. I’m not going to do that. The decision to lower the proof of Maker’s is unfortunate and disappointing, but the level of internet outrage regarding the proof change is completely out of proportion, surpassing even the Ebay/Pappy hysteria of 2012. I have no desire to contribute to this silliness any more than I already have.
Instead, I’m going to call attention to something much more worthy of getting upset about: The death of A. Smith Bowman Master Distiller Truman Cox.
I didn’t know Truman very well. We were Facebook friends and I only recall meeting him once in person. He was the kind of guy who would greet you with a hearty handshake and a smile. As a friend of mine said, he was above all a genuine guy. He loved his family and he seemed to enjoy life immensely.
He was also a whiskey man through and through. His prior position was at Buffalo Trace as chief chemist. He became Master Distiller at Bowman at a crucial time, as Bowman had recently moved to a new location, had a relatively new owner, Sazerac (also owner of Buffalo Trace), and was in the midst of a profound transformation. 10 years ago, Bowman was little more than a curiosity. It was the only large-ish bourbon distillery still operating in the state of Virginia and had only one (fairly) widely distributed brand, Virginia Gentleman. It came in 80 and 90 proof expressions.
When Truman moved to Virginia, the transformation of Bowman was well underway. The 90 proof VG had been replaced by Bowman Brothers Small Batch Bourbon at 90 proof and a 100 proof single barrel bourbon, John J. Bowman, was also introduced (review coming soon). Also made are Abraham Bowman Rye (I review the TPS barrel-stength version here) and Sunset Hills Gin. Under the brief period of Truman’s leadership the transformation of Bowman was completed, and Bowman began putting out some of the most highly regarded and sought after private bottlings of bourbons and ryes among enthusiasts. They were able to have the best of both worlds. They operated like a micro-distillery in many ways, but they were also able to draw upon the resources of a large spirits company like Sazerac and a large distillery like Buffalo Trace.
Truman was one of the brightest rising stars in the world of American whiskey and his sudden death is a great loss for the industry and bourbon drinkers alike. Here are some links:
Here’s hoping he gets that bottle named after him at last.
Age: 23 y/o
Proof: 94 (47% ABV)
Thanks to: Oscar for this sample
Appearance: Dark Auburn
Nose: Wood varnish, oak, peanut brittle, slightly musty, an elusive fruity note: sometimes purple Kool-Aid and sometimes orange Tang.
On the palate: Soft mouth feel. Toffee, butterscotch, oak, alcohol, clove.
Finish: Very dry, old oak, some alcohol and a touch of sweetness.
Parting words: I make no secret of my dislike of old American whiskeys. When even my beloved Four Roses distillery came out with a 17 year old bourbon a couple years ago I was not impressed. The Elijah Craig 18 y/o bourbons I have tasted and enjoyed are few and far between. KBD’s Vintage series of bourbons and ryes are all old whiskeys but have the advantage of being relatively affordable. The downside is that, if KBD got a hold of it, there’s a good chance the distillers didn’t think it was good enough to release under one of their own labels or even blend it into something else. Such is the risk of buying old whiskey from non-distiller producers.
So when Oscar gave me the sample I was skeptical. My skepticism proved to be largely unwarranted. This rye is very drinkable. I’ve had 20 y/o bourbons (from distillery-owned labels) that were not nearly as easy to drink as this. That said, Vintage 23 falls into the curiosity or vatting whiskey category for me. It’s something I might buy one bottle for to use for a tasting or to bring out when whiskey friends are over. Too woody and old to be a classic but interesting enough to warrant some interest. Vintage Rye 23 y/o is recommended.
Style: Low rye, Kentucky-style, rye whiskey. Yes, I’m making that a thing.
Proof: 100 (50% ABV)
Appearance: dark copper.
Nose: Sweetness, aniseed, cumin, woodruff, lavender, caramel.
On the palate: Medium bodied with some alcohol bite. Dry with some good but well-balanced rye character.
Finish: Dry and clean. A nice, long, post-sip tingle.
Parting words: Jim Beam Rye (along with its sister-label, Old Overholt) has long been a whipping boy for American Whiskey enthusiasts. Underwhelming would be the best word for it. It lacks rye character or, frankly, much character at all. Still it has been a big seller in a small (but fast growing) segment. It is available almost everywhere Beam’s bourbons are available.
In 2008 Beam released a new product called Ri1 (Rye One, get it?) in a handsome, modern-looking bottle. The hope was to provide an upscale Beam rye for rye enthusiasts and especially mixologists. The rumor was that more Ris would follow, Ri2, Ri3, Ri4, etc. At this point, it’s probably safe to call Ri1 a flop. The stuff was/is over-priced and underpowered at $47 and 92 proof. No further numbers have been forthcoming either.
Knob Creek Rye is widely perceived as a replacement of sorts for Ri1. Knob Creek bourbon has been a very successful brand for Beam. Many whiskey lovers (like this one) considerit to be the best bourbon made from the Jim Beam mashbill (Beam also makes Old Grand-dad, but uses a different recipe and yeast).
Knob Creek rye is a great improvement on Ri1 and a welcome extention to the Knob Creek line. Like the bourbon, it is 100 proof and comes in an attractive, retro-styled bottle. It lacks an age-statement, but youth is not a problem here. If you enjoy Kentucky-style ryes, then you will probably enjoy this whiskey. It is well-balanced, unlike many of the newer high-rye ryes (a style I enjoyed at first but I am quickly tiring of), and very sippable. The higher proof does it a world of good. It brings out the complexity and spice that get muffled in the 80 proof Beam rye.
One problem Knob Creek Rye shares with Ri1 is the price. When it first arrived in Michigan, it sold for $40 a bottle. I thought it was expensive, but given the proof and the scarcity of rye, it was a fair price (barely). The state minimum price has since been hiked by $5. That pushes it over the edge for me. If you can find it for under $40, I recommend it. If over, leave it on the shelf.