Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

Updated 11/19 to include tasting notes! Sorry!

Maker: Crown Royal, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada (Diageo)20161118_190337.jpg

Style: Blended Canadian Rye

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Michigan state minimum: $32

Appearance: Medium copper

Nose: Bubblegum, spearmint, alcohol, dried wildflowers

Palate: Full bodied. Grape jelly, maple sugar, cut hay.

Finish: Grape soda, oak, butterscotch.

Parting words: Whisky writer Jim Murray proclaimed Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye his 2015 Whisky of the Year, to much internet snickering and mockery. His announcements are usually met with snark, but in 2015 it seemed to be stronger than usual. Many online whisky heads found it laughable that Murray chose a $30 or so Canadian Whisky from Crown Royal for his big award. The whisky itself got lost in the shuffle.

That whisky is good. It’s not a world beater, but at $32 it doesn’t need to be. It’s unlike Alberta Premium (or its kin). It tastes like something between that and an Kentucky style rye. Sweet, with a little spice and a little herbal aroma on the back.As I said in my last review the days of good rye for cheap is over, largely. Stuff like this is as good as it’s going to get in the near future. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is recommended.

Woodford Reserve Rye

Maker: Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky, USA (Brown-Forman)20161112_174733.jpg

Style: Straight Kentucky style Rye Whiskey (low rye)

Age: NAS

ABV: 90.4 (45.2% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $38

Appearance: Dark orange with evenly spaced legs.

Nose: Burnt caramel, cedar, burnt orange.

Palate: Full bodied and sweet. Maple sugar candy, chocolate orange, burn.

Finish: Hot and chocolaty. Goes strong for a long time.

Mixed: Does very well

Parting words: This is the third rye Woodford Reserve has released, but the first wide release. The first two were the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Rye whiskeys, both entirely distilled and aged at the beautiful Woodford campus (aka Labrot & Graham) in Versailles, south of Frankfort. They were released in a set of two 375 ml bottles in a decorative box. One was aged in used barrels, another in a new charred barrel. I liked them both, but I’m in the minority. I reviewed it here on the shores of Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan, with the help of friends-of-the-blog (and sisters) Amy and Jennifer. This whiskey’s other kin is Rittenhouse Rye, owned by Heaven Hill but contract distilled for them by Brown-Forman at their big Louisville distillery after the devastating 1996 Heaven Hill fire. Rittenhouse is now distilled by Heaven Hill.

Like the standard Woodford, this is a combination of Louisville and Versailles distillate. It has some characteristics of both, but I don’t want to read too much into that, since it may be a different recipe(s) from Rittenhouse and the WRMC. It has the caramel and orange of Rittenhouse but also the light spice of the WRMC ryes. Before rye became popular, probably would have dragged this whiskey for being too expensive and boring. In those days one could get beautiful, aged ryes like Rittenhouse or Sazerac for well under $30, but not anymore. Cheap ryes now taste like cheap ryes. Woodford Rye is not exactly thrilling, but it is a good example of the style and it lacks any obvious flaws. In its price range, I would rate Knob Creek Rye (at 100 proof) higher, but this bottle is still a recommendation.

 

Three way head to head micro-rye tasting: Journeyman vs Few vs Union Horse

J= Journeyman Last Feather Rye, batch 17wp-1468093192015.jpg

F= FEW Rye, batch 15

UH= Union Horse Reunion Straight Rye, batch 1

Maker

J: Journeyman, Three Oaks, Michigan, USA

F: FEW, Evanston, Illinois, USA

UH: Union Horse, Lenexa, Kansas, USA

Age

J: NAS

F: “At least one year”*

UH: “Over two years”*

*Age statements like these are not in line with regulatory standards

Proof

J: 90 (45% ABV)

F: 93 (46.5% ABV)

UH: 93 (46.5% ABV)

Price

J: $50 (Michigan State Minimum)

F: $60 (Michigan State Minimum)

UH: $39 (MSRP)

Note: Received a complimentary bottle of UH from FleischmanHillard PR for review purposes.

Appearance

J: Medium copper.

F: A little lighter but still copper.

UH: Quite a bit darker. Shiny auburn.

Nose

J: Bananas, cherry bubble gum, alcohol, oak.

F: Christmas tree scented candle, orange peel.

UH: Cut grass, toasted grain. Similar to Canandian Club.

Palate

J: Banana, black licorice, alcohol.

F: Mild. Peppermint.

UH: Full bodied and sweet. Brown sugar, oak, alcohol.

Finish

J: Big licorice that lingers.

F: Spearmint gum.

UH: Grassy and sweet, then Grape-Nuts cereal.

Mixed: With ginger ale, in a Manhattan and a Sazerac

J: Brought big licorice to all three. Excelled in the manhattan.

F: Did fine in everything. Nothing offensive.

UH: Same as F above.

Parting words: This is one of those head to head tastings that ends up making me mad. The overall winner was Last Feather Rye, but with a couple concerns. I loved the licorice and banana flavors but those are flavors I don’t expect out of rye whiskey. Nothing wrong with that on its own, but those flavors combined with the absence of the word “straight” on the front label makes me wonder if Journeyman is flavoring its rye, a la Templeton. This is legal, but should be disclosed to consumers. If I had my act together, I would have emailed or called them to ask, but I didn’t think of that possibility until now. I’ll try to get that information in the near future. To be fair, FEW isn’t straight either, but with FEW there’s nothing in the glass outside of the typical range of flavors for American ryes.

FEW Rye was ok, but nothing too extraordinary. It drank like a less refined version of Bulleit rye. The mintiness does fine in cocktails but it was overwhelming neat. Reunion was a horse of a different color. Its profile was closer to a Canadian blended rye than any American rye I’ve had recently. It’s better balanced than FEW, but not as flavorful as Last Feather.

The elephant in the room with all of these is the price. Journeyman is $50, which is too high for a whiskey that isn’t a straight. FEW is $60, which is just plain dumb. Reunion is priced better and is a straight, but is still pushing it when it comes to price.

Journeyman is mildly recommended, FEW is not recommended and Reunion is recommended (at or near MRSP)

Pikesville Rye

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Kentucky, USA2016-01-29-16.52.04.jpg.jpeg

Style: Kentucky straight rye whiskey

Age: 6 y/o

Proof: 110 (55% ABV)

Michgan state minimum: $50

Appearance: Dark auburn

Nose: Cut grass, oak, alcohol grape soda, caramel.

Palate: Full bodied. Spicy and hot. Caramel, root beer. Water brings out sweet cinnamon and chili powder.

Finish: Oak, and then habanero. With water: a splash of caramel corn, then a low ancho burn.

Parting words: Pikesville is a fairly old Maryland brand that ended up being the last rye distilled in the state. The distillery stopped distilling in 1972 but kept going using old stock until 1982 in a testament to how bad sales were. Heaven Hill bought the brand then and it served as their bottom shelf, 80 proof rye for the next 30+ years. In 2015 they decided to reboot Pikesville as a 110 proof upper-shelfer. Judging by this bottle, the reboot is a success.

There seems to be a large proportion of pretty old (12 y/o or older) stock in the mix. I have never had an young Kentucky style rye with this much oak showing. It’s remarkable and well worth the price. This a is well balanced with loads of character that drinks pretty easy for 110 proof. If you enjoy Heaven Hill’s other rye, Rittenhouse, you’ll love this. It even stands up to the hallowed Van Winkle Family Reserve rye well. I hope they don’t let the high quality slip over the next few years. Highly recommended.

Jim Beam Rye (“Pre-Prohibition Style”)

Maker: Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam-Suntory)wpid-2015-11-06-17.15.44.jpg.jpeg

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.

A Midwinter Nights Dram

Maker: High West, Park City, Utah, USAwpid-2015-10-23-17.15.39.jpg.jpeg

Distillers: MGPI, some Kentucky distillery or distilleries.

Style: Blend of straight rye whiskeys finished in French oak and port barrels.

Age: NAS

Act 2.9, Scene 234

Proof: 98.6 (49.3% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $82

Appearance: Dark copper.

Nose: Alcohol, cut grass, prunes, dried figs, tawny Port.

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.

Royal Oaked Rye

Maker: Motor City Gas, Royal Oak, Michigan, USAwpid-2015-06-26-16.21.11.jpg.jpeg

Style: Kentucky “barely legal” style rye

Age: >1 y/o

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

Purchased for $36/750 ml. $25 for 375 ml.

Appearance: Bright gold. Slightly hazy.

Nose: Fruity. Tangerine, alcohol, potpourri.

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.

Head to Head: Rittenhouse DSP KY 1 vs DSP KY 354

Maker: Heaven Hill, Bardstown/Louisville, Ketucky, USAwpid-20150130_172202.jpg

Distilled

1: Heaven Hill, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

354: Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Style: Kentucky rye.

Age: NAS

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $24 (DSP 354 edition is no longer being produced).

Appearance

1: Burnt orange.

354: A bit lighter. Bright copper.

Nose

1: Alcohol, caramel, creamed corn, tarragon, sawdust.

354: Softer. Spearmint, alcohol, roasted corn.

Palate

1: Neat- Heat and little else. Water brings out candy and oak notes.

354: Round and soft, even neat. Potpourri, rock candy, alcohol.

Finish

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.

Old Overholt

Maker: Beam, Clermont, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)OO

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.

Lot No. 40, 2012 Release

Maker: Corby, Windsor, Ontario, Canada (Pernod-Ricard)Lot No. 40

Style: Canadian Rye

Age: NAS

ABV: 43%

Price: $60 (Binny’s)

Appearance: Auburn, with long thick legs.

Nose: Wintergreen, cotton candy, pine, leather.

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.