Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam-Suntory)
Style: Kentucky style rye
Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)
Proof: 90 (45% ABV)
Michigan State Minimum: $22
Appearance: Pale copper with thick legs.
Nose: Alcohol, oak, caramel, sourdough, tarragon.
Palate: Medium bodied. Rock candy, salted caramels, cocoa powder, strawberry bubble gum.
Finish: Spearmint, amaretto, oak, alcohol.
Mixed: Made a Sazerac, old fashioned, hot toddy and put it in ginger ale with some orange bitters. Did well in everything I tried, but didn’t particularly distinguish itself in anything.
Parting words: This new “Prohibition style” rye is a replacement for the old yellow label Jim Beam rye. In the dark days of rye in the 1980s and 1990s, Jim Beam rye was one of the only brands of rye widely available. I first tasted rye in the late 90s and I believe Jim Beam was the first one I tried. I came away with the impression that rye whiskey’s defining characteristic was its mild sweetness and thus stayed away for several years after that. It wasn’t until I started exploring bourbon that I rediscovered rye and learned that it’s actually supposed to be spicy.
This Jim Beam rye reboot is definitely an improvement on the old yellow label. The proof is higher, for one thing, and it has more going on than just sweetness. It has pleasantly rye-ish herbal notes in the nose and finish and doesn’t get as lost in cocktails as its predecessor. Beam has also solved its Old Overholt problem. No longer are Overholt and Beam Rye the Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat of the whiskey world. They are actually different products now. Old Overholt is 3 y/o and 80 proof, while this is at least 4 y/o (probably in the 4-6 range) and 90 proof. It is still too sweet for me, and the back label is an example of how not to fill up the back of a bottle.*
Bad copy aside, this rye whiskey does fine against its competition. It’s easier to find, more consistent and cheaper than the overrated Sazerac and Wild Turkey ryes. I don’t care for the current (DSP KY 1) Rittenhouse rye, but a lot of people do and it is 100 proof which means Rittenhouse is better able to stand up to mixers than Jim Beam Rye is, even at the new higher strength. I would have to give the edge to Rittenhouse as a mixer, but Beam is still recommended for that purpose. Not recommended as a sipper, though. For that, spring for a bottle of the excellent Knob Creek Rye.
*”Founded in 1795, Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye is made with the same exacting standards that have governed Jim Beam for over 200 years.” Considering that Jim Beam the man was born in 1864 and the company that bears his name was founded after prohibition, that doesn’t seem possible without time travel being involved. What the 1795 date really refers to is when Beam patriarch Jacob Beam (aka Jakob Boehm) began commercial distilling in Kentucky. He did not found the company that bears his great-grandson’s name, let alone come up with the rye recipe used to make what’s in this bottle.
Palate: Fruity and rich. Apple-mint jelly, cinnamon disks.
Finish: Hot and spicy, then shifts to big menthol and eucalyptus flavors.
Mixed: Makes for a good hot toddy and Manhattan.
Parting words: High West’s Rendezvous Rye is one of my favorite ryes, and this is a finished version of that. Port finished bourbons were all the rage a couple years ago when this product was introduced, ushered in by Angel’s Envy. I have liked the products generally, and I like this one. The minty character of the high rye MGPI tends to run roughshod over everything else here. There’s a little bit of Port that shines through, but not too much (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing).
A Midwinter Nights Dram is good by the fire and would probably be good with a cigar if I smoked. The sweetness complements smoky environs nicely. I can’t really say that I like it more than Rendezvous Rye but I should if I’m paying $30 more for it. A Midwinter Nights Dram is mildly recommended.
Palate: Full bodied and soft. Caramel, amaretto, cherry, ripe peach, ancho chili.
Finish: A pinch of chipotle, followed by vanilla and a dark chocolate. Lingers for a long time.
Parting words: Motor City Gas is a brand new micro-distillery very close to Sipology Blog HQ in Royal Oak, Michigan. When I visited in early June with friend-of-the-blog Amy, we had a chance to chat with Rich, the owner and operator of MCG. He started his journey as a home brewer. He then became interested in whiskey and (according to articles in the local press) worked at a several distilleries to learn the craft, including Koval, Grand Traverse and the East Lansing distillery. His intent is to exclusively produce whiskeys, possibly branching out to other brown spirits in the future. No gin or vodka.
They had two whiskeys available at the time, this and a bourbon. The bourbon was ok, with a peanutty aroma that reminded me of George Dickel No. 12 or Elijah Craig. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the rye was what really impressed me. They have since released a malt whiskey which I have not yet had.
Royal Oaked rye is a rare thing in a microdistilled product; it’s something I could see becoming a go-to. Its combination of fruit and spice reminds me of DSP KY 354 Rittenhouse or Baby Saz in their primes. It beat the current DSP 1 bottle of Ritt I have open, hands down. It mixes well, too, but it’s almost too good for that. Maybe my expectations were too low going in, but I really love this whiskey. $36 is a fair price, considering micro-inflation and the relative scarcity of good rye these days. I almost can’t believe I’m saying this but Royal Oaked Rye is highly recommended.
1: Neat- Heat and little else. Water brings out candy and oak notes.
354: Round and soft, even neat. Potpourri, rock candy, alcohol.
1: Hot and harsh. The caramel and herbal flavors start to shift into something much less pleasant.
2: Long and grassy. Freshly mowed lawn, alcohol, orange peel.
Parting words: After the infamous Heaven Hill fire in 1997, HH turned to their competitors/friends at Jim Beam and Brown-Forman to distill some of their whiskeys for them while they made necessary alterations to their new distillery in Louisville. Brown-Forman (the distillery formerly known as Early Times, DSP 354) picked up the distillation of Rittenhouse, our heroes’ flagship rye, during that period. It is also during that period that many whiskey enthusiasts like myself became big fans of the bonded Rittenhouse. Perhaps the consistently high quality of this rye and Sazerac rye during that period led to the current rye revival in some way.
Anyway, I’ve been wanting to do these two head to head for a long time. Now that I have, I’m surprised. I didn’t expect much difference between these two but there was quite a bit. When two whiskeys are so close to each other, those differences can become exaggerated, naturally, but that’s the point to these head to head tastings. “It’s the little differences,” as Vincent Vega said.
Simply put, the DSP 1 did not fare well against the 354. It wasn’t terrible, it but it was comparitively hot and unrefined neat. It was better with a splash of water and even better than that mixed. 354 needed no water and gave off some very pleasant characteristic rye notes in the nose and the palate. When mixed, there was very little difference between the two.
1 is mildly recommended overall but recommended as a mixer. 354 is recommended for all purposes but given its growing scarcity I would save it for sipping neat or close to it.
Maker: Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)
Style: Kentucky rye whiskey
Age: 3 y/o
Proof: 80 (40% ABV)
Michigan state minimum: $22
Appearance: Pale copper.
Nose: Burnt corn syrup, white dog, lavender, epazote, wood varnish.
Palate: Sugar, alcohol and an indescribable herbal note.
Finish: Peanut brittle, tarragon, alcohol.
Mixed: Did well mixed in everything I tried it in. Did well with ginger ale and just fine in a Sazerac. The OO Manhattan was very good but I used a strongly flavored vermouth so Overholt was a bit overmatched. I didn’t try anything else but Don Draper once used it to make an Old Fashioned.
Parting words: Old Overholt is one of the oldest whiskey brands in America. It was originally made in Pennsyvania, first under the ownership of Abraham Overholt then his grandson industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The brand became a part of National Distillers after Prohibition. Production was moved from Pennsylvania to the Old Grand-Dad distillery (a.k.a. The Forks of the Elkhorn) in Frankfort, Kentucky after ND shut down its distilleries in PA. Production was moved to Clermont when Beam acquired National Distillers in 1987. It now occupies the bottom shelf of Beam’s rye brands (the others being Jim Beam Rye, Ri1, Knob Creek Rye) at 3 years old and 80 proof.
Old Overholt’s history is neat, but I would never recommend drinking it neat. It’s rough and weak. The best that can be said for it is that it’s easy to find (now that it is finally in Michigan), mixes well and is relatively cheap. On the other hand, Rittenhouse rye is also easy to find these days and is only $2 more. It has the added advantages of tasting great both neat and mixed and being 100 proof. Sazerac and Bulleit rye are more expensive (both are $28) and Sazerac is much harder to find but both taste good either way.
In summary, if all you do with your rye is mix it, then Old Overholt is mildly recommended. If you want a rye to drink neat, with water or on the rocks then look elsewhere. Not recommended.
Palate: Light mouthfeel, but spicy and hot. Butterscotch, oak, clove, curry powder, cayenne.
Finish: Hard candy, more evergreen and potpourri then heat. A little oak and tobacco rounds it off.
Parting words: This whisky is a reboot of a reboot, sort of. The original lot no. 40 was the farm plot of early Canadian and distiller Joshua Booth on the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario. His descendant Michael D. Booth created Lot No. 40 the whisky as a tribute to his ancestor as a part of Corby’s ill-fated Canadian Whisky Guild line in the 1990s. It was revived in 2012 and that’s the edition currently on store shelves.
If there’s a knock on Canadian whisky as a category, it’s that it’s dull. The overwhelming majority of them are blends built to provide lots of “smoothness” for little money. As more flavorful styles of whisky like bourbon, rye and single malt Scotch have become more popular, Canadian distillers have begun to release bolder and even unblended whiskies to chase consumers who are tired of bland spirits.
Lot No. 40 is one of the greatest examples of these bolder offerings. It packs a wallop of flavor to rival ea bourbon or single malt Scotch. A lot of that is down to the 100% rye (10% malted and 90% unmalted)
recipe. Many Canadian distilleries make a whisky like this but it almost always gets blended away to add flavor to bland grain whisky in cheap blends. I’m very glad this made it into a bottle as is, and I can’t wait for the next edition.
The price is high for a Canadian whisky but it’s worth every penny. It may actually be cheaper in Canada, so make a run for the border if you can sometime soon. Lot No. 40 is highly recommended.
Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Campari)
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.