RYE ME? or the North Texas Spirits Society Rye Tasting Extravaganza!
This past Sunday the NTSS met at our usual haunt for another exceptional event! And on this auspicious occasion, our focus was on Rye Whiskies – American or Canadian – and it turned out to be an exceptional tasting session!
As per our stringent and highly enforced Club Rules, everyone was to bring ONE bottle. However, in typical fashion for these
reprobates, er um, gallant enthusiasts, almost everyone failed to adhere to this simple edict! But, despite their flagrant rules violations, no one was ejected from the meeting or otherwise publicly flogged for their rather predictable transgressions!
Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know, get on to the whiskies!
Here’s the Main Course – otherwise known as the official submissions! We tasted these in order working from right-to-left in the photo, with a head-to-head-to-head comparison of the two Willett’s and the Old Scout.
The Main Course
We started with an A.D. Laws Secale Rye Bottled in Bond that George brought. The information that I can gather on the interweb of the wide world, tells us that this is a seasonal release from the Laws Whiskey House in Denver, CO. According to their site, the Small Batch Secale Rye is made with a mash of 95% rye and 5% barley, all Colorado grown, using classic open air, sour mash fermentation, it is double distilled in their Vendome 4-plate pot/column still, aged no less than 3 years in full-sized 53 gallon new American white oak barrels, and then bottled at 100 proof. The Laws was a new one to me and it was a very pleasant first whiskey of the evening; nicely rich body, well-balanced blend of spicy and bready rye notes along with some well-developed sweeter vanilla.
Next up was a bottle of High West Rendezvous Rye, compliments of Mark H. This was not just any bottle of Rendezvous Rye, though, this was a K&L Wines exclusive bottling. While it may just be marketing hype, this rye was a blend of a 6-year old and a 16-year old that were married together and aged for an additional 19 months in a used bourbon barrel. The High West website informs us that Rendezvous Rye is a blend of older Straight Rye whiskeys ranging in age from 5 to 19 years, with component whiskies from various sources and with varying recipes: a 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP; a 53% rye, 37% corn, 10% from the Barton Distillery; and/or a 80% rye, 10% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery. High West just puts together some exceptional rye whiskies and this one was on par for them. The additional bourbon barrel aging did seem to add a more pronounced vanilla kick to go with the beautiful spice and bready notes.
We followed the Rendezvous Rye with another whisky from High West, but one much rarer! Pete shared a bottle of the Rocky Mountain Rye “Very Rare”, Batch 10 and bottle number 2744. The Rocky Mountain Rye is not a straight rye because it does not comply with the legal definitions. What we have is referred to by High West as a “Whiskey Distilled from Rye Mash Stored 21 Years in Re-Used Cooperage.” It is the use of reused barrels mean that prohibits High West from calling this a straight rye whiskey. Regardless, we have 21-year old whisky made using a 53% rye mash and aged 21 years in these “reused” barrels, that is very good and shows that, like with other High West ryes, High West knows how to pick barrels and manage aging. Beautiful and rich spice notes, softly sweet, and lively. The 21 years aging did not cause too much oakiness to show up – thanks to the “reused cooperage” employed.
Next we went to my offering – but before we continue, I have a major disclaimer that needs to be put into print. Technically, I brought a bottle of this Jefferson’s Presidential Select 25-year old rye to share; it was one I knew the NTSS crowd would enjoy. But, as I’ve said before, with this bunch, finding a whiskey to share that one or more of the guys doesn’t have, is an extremely difficult challenge. And so it proved with the Jefferson’s. As would have it, the Chris, aka the Liquorhound, had also brought a bottle of this whiskey, and which was already opened. Mine was still closed. Cross my heart, I was ready to open my bottle! But given my pending move to Spain, and the restrictions of shipping open bottles, Chris volunteered his bottle so I could keep mine closed. This 25-year old rye was released in 2013, and comes from Batch No. 1, Bottle No. 1800. This was a distinctly different from the previous High West ryes. Here we had a much more prominent ripe fruit aspect that carried the rye spiciness, as opposed to the previous rye spice-dominant High West whiskeys. The aging was very well-managed, virtually no oakiness, but rendering a deep, rich body, and a luscious finish. This one proved to be in almost everyone’s top one or two.
On we went to taste another special release, the Old Potrero Hotaling’s 18-year old. The Old Potrero Hotaling’s, from the Anchor Distilling Company in San Francisco, is a series of bottled in bond releases of straight rye whiskeys made with a 100% rye mash. Surprisingly, given that the Hotaling’s is a 100% single malt rye, this whiskey was very subtle, with a more fruit-forward profile, with the rye spice very subtle and very much secondary to this taste. There was a bit of oakiness, too, that popped up with the addition of a few drops of water. Good, perhaps not great.
After the Old Potrero, we decided to try the next three whiskeys together, comparing them to one another because of their shared origins. Mark S brought a 6-year old Willett Family Estate Bottled Straight Rye, bottled at 58.2%abv / 116.4 proof. Sean N brought an 8-year old Willett Family Estate Bottled Straight Rye (58.1% / 116.2 proof), and Mark E supplied a bottle of Smooth Ambler Old Scout 8-year old (60.9% / 121.8 proof) Straight Rye. The connection between these whiskeys is that they are all sourced from MGP in Indiana.
The similarities between these whiskies was very evident, with perhaps one exception. There are references to the existence of “pickle juice” on the nose of some Willett ryes and with the 6-year old, we actually picked it up, although only before water was added and only after letting the glass sit for a few minutes. Picking up and moving the whiskey around eliminated that peculiar note, as did the water. All three whiskeys were strongly rye-spice centric with complementary ripe fruit and creamy vanilla notes; all three shared a rather loud spearmint note, too. The two 8-year old whiskeys, the Old Scout and the Willett, were frankly nearly indiscernible from one another. Adding water, and they will take quite a bit of water, improved all of them quite a bit, bringing out better balance and removing the alcohol heat. Consensus was (except for Mark E!) that the Willett 8 yo was slightly superior to the Old Scout 8 yo, followed by the Willett 6 yo which had some slightly rougher edges compared to the other two.
Chris, aka the Liquorhound, brought (besides the Jefferson’s and others, as you’ll see) a star whiskey. Everyone’s eyes widened when Chris placed on the table a bottle of the 2012 release of the Thomas H Handy Sazarac Straight Rye Whiskey (66.2% / 132.4 proof)! The Thomas H Handy bottlings are part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, an annual release of cask strength whiskey with names of historical significance, and which are usually available only through allotment. The bottles in the Antique Collection include the George T. Stagg, the Sazerac Rye, the William Larue Weller, the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, and Eagle Rare. There is a reason these bottlings are highly sought after, they are almost always phenomenal! And we weren’t disappointed! The Handy was a big, bold, balanced, rich, and long-lasting tasting experience. Densely spicy, warm bread, vanilla, mint and some ripe fruits, this was universally rated our top whiskey of the evening!
In the unfortunate position of having to follow the Handy, Sean N shared a bottle of the Corsair Ryemageddon. While the Ryemageddon is a core release from Corsair, arguably the most experimental distillery around, this particular whiskey was a “Binny’s Single Barrel” bottling – Binny’s being a very large retail chain in the Chicagoland area. This iteration of the Ryemageddon was released in 2015 (N15-14-0426) and bottled at 61.8% abv / 123.6 proof. I really like the Ryemageddon, having bought several bottles myself and also included it in one of our previous NWC events! I’d actually tried this one once previously, and was more than happy to try it again. And despite having to follow the Handy, this one held its own very respectably. The Ryemageddon is a very lively, explosive whiskey, magnified by this cask strength bottling. Like the Willett’s this one takes water very well, and which then produces a surprisingly nuanced rye whiskey; definitely rye-forward, but nicely multi-dimensional.
After working through the Main Course, and then a brief respite for more food, we moved on to the Supplemental lineup! Remember, I told you that this crowd can’t seem to restrict themselves to the single bottle that they are supposed to bring! Not that anyone really complains! Here are some of the additional whiskeys that showed up on the table!
Here is where the free-for-all started! Well, not exactly, but everyone was able to choose which of these others they wanted to try.
I started with the Old Scout 7-year old Straight Rye. Like its sibling and the two Willett ryes, this shared the same DNA and was very similar. A nice blending of rye spice, bready and floral notes, with an underlying vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and soft fruits.
Then I tried the High West Double Rye, one of the regular ryes I like to keep on my shelf. This one was from barrel no. 2570, bottled at 53.6% abv, and was bottle no. 56. I really like the Double Rye for its very spicy and floral nature; this is not a “delicate” whiskey! Warm marbled rye bread, fresh-cut hay, loads of peppery spice, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, a dash of lemon, spiced vanilla.
Next I poured the Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey, a NAS, standard offering from Anchor. Another bottle of this whiskey was the first rye from Anchor that I had an opportunity to try, and I liked it a lot. I even added another bottle to my supply closet! This one has lots of rye spice, too, along with mint, ginger, a bit of molasses, a bit more red fruits than the Double Rye, and soft hints of vanilla. Interestingly, this bottle was much darker than the Hotaling’s, which might come from different charring levels in the casks.
Next was a Five Fathers “Pure Rye Malt Whiskey” that Chris also supplied. This whiskey was distilled by the Old Pogue Distillery, LLC in Maysville, KY and bottled at 55%. I’d not heard of this one before, so I was very interested to try it.
In looking at their website, they reference 100 years of distilling history, and that “Today’s Old Pogue is safeguarded by the 5th and 6th generations of the Pogue family. The company remains solely owned and operated by family members. It is our aim to create incredible whiskies of old and new while acting as custodians of the business, history and family home.” Per Wikipedia, dating back to around 1869, the original distillery was Kentucky registered distillery number 3, in Maysville, Kentucky. The distillery was shut down by Prohibition, revived after 18 years, then shut down again during World War II. The brand remained off the market for about 60 years, being revived around 2005 by descendants of the Pogue family and Heaven Hill whiskey sourced from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Ltd (KBD). The family established a new distillery in Maysville around 2012.
The labeling does state that this whiskey was distilled at The Old Pogue Distillery and given the 2012 restart, that seems reasonable. However, in tasting this whiskey, I’m not sure they were quite ready to hit the market. Sadly, this was not a good whiskey. The oak just dominated everything; no real rye spice, no sweetness, just off-notes of wood. Quite possibly this was released to generate some income and some brand awareness, but based on this experience, I think that they need to reevaluate their readiness!
Next up was another interesting opportunity for comparison: a chance to taste consecutive releases of the WhistlePig Boss Hog Straight Rye Whiskey. The labels proclaim these to be part of the “Spice Dancer” series, one from barrel 6, the other from barrel 7; both are aged for 123/4 years, finished in bourbon barrels, and bottled at a whopping 67.3% abv / 134.5 proof. One other label item of note: the label now clearly states that these whiskeys were Bottled at WhistlePig Farm. I won’t bore you with minutiae, but Whistle Pig was at the forefront of the legal issues surrounding truth-in-advertising for sourced whiskeys. They had initially claimed to be the distiller of their whiskies, but were found out to have sourced their whiskeys from Canada. After denial and resistance, the producers finally acceded and no longer claim to be the distiller.
As for the whiskeys, good stuff! Brightly flavored, with a well-balanced spice and fruit character. The high-proof doesn’t show up too strongly when tasted neat, but they do benefit from the addition of water, becoming richer and sweeter while retaining the spiciness. Honestly, there was very little to distinguish one from the other. Now, are they worth the prices now being charged? At $300 or more, simply no, not in my book. These are very good, enjoyable whiskeys, but there are numerous, more affordable options out there that offer as good, or better tasting experiences.
From there, I went into the selection of Canadian ryes that were available. I started with Canadian Club 100% Rye. The Canadian Club 100% Rye Whisky is effectively the rye component that is used for the standard Canadian Club whiskey. Bottled at 40% abv / 80 proof, this one was both very delicate, and a little under-powered. Surprisingly soft and sweet, this also suffered from a lack of real personality. However, this whiskey is very affordable and probably works well as a cocktail whiskey, offering just enough spice and sweet vanilla notes to settle in with other components. On the simple side, not bad, but probably not quite as robust or intriguing as the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye I reviewed a while back.
My second to last whiskey was the Ninety “Decades of Richness” 20-year old Canadian Rye Whiskey from the Highwood Distillery, in High River Alberta. The interesting tidbit here is that a severe flood hit the distillery in 2013 and they lost all the bottled whiskey. The warehouse was mostly spared, so after removal and checks, the whiskey that was in cask continued to age until being bottled. This particular release was one of those.
While Canadian whiskey has a historical connection to the term “rye whiskey”, in reality many Canadian whiskeys are a blending of corn, rye, and barley, making their profiles much rounder and, in some ways, more bourbon-like, than what we’ve come to expect from a “rye” based on the current American approach. The Ninety falls into the traditional Canadian whiskey camp. Soft, round, sweet notes of vanilla, buttered bread, orchard fruits, and light herbal spices, this is eminently drinkable.
For the final whiskey of the evening, one I’d specifically saved for last among the “desserts”, was the Canadian Club 30-year old, a special release to celebrate their 150th anniversary. This demonstrated all the beauty that Canadian whiskeys can possess. Certainly the aging led to a prominent wood influence, with some tannic dryness, but it still retained a liveliness that showed up on some light citric notes, ripe red fruits, vanilla bean, a hint of tobacco leaf, baking spices, and brown sugar. Bottled at 40% abv, this was delicate and round, supple and elegant, and an excellent example of what a good Canadian whiskey can be.
So, once again, we had to suffer through another evening of both extraordinary and questionable whiskeys. I know you appreciate that we take these risks on your behalf! Cheers!