A Wry Old Rye and Other Tales of Aging: Number Ten Second Whiskey Tasting Symposium

The Number Ten Second Whiskey Tasting Symposium, A Wry Old Rye and Other Tales of Aging took place on Monday, September 10, 2018, as I ramp up the tasting program now that the restaurant’s summer season begins to fade for this year. What follows are the hand-out notes for the full house of participants.  I cap the number of participants at 12, because that is the maximum number for comfort–for sitting around the joined tables, for interaction, and for satisfying contact.  One of the pleasures of the tastings is to see participants grow from a collection of strangers one to the other, to become a spirited group exchanging impressions of the whiskey among themselves.  Whiskey is, indeed, a convivial social agent!

The featured image for this post is the Scofflaw Cocktail, which is a Rye-based subtle sour, and both Rittenhouse and Wild Turkey 101 Rye both hold up very well in this drink.

The finger that wags the dog. The Second Number Ten Whiskey Tasting Symposium took place on September 10, 2018. I must be making some point–I’m not scolding anyone, honest!

A Wry Old Rye and Other Tales of Aging

Rye, the “Other American Whiskey,” started its marketplace boom about a decade ago, following on the explosion in popularity of Bourbon.  Rye is the same as Bourbon in all ways except in the make-up of the grain mash, where a minimum of 51% of rye grain is required in the grain mash, compared to Bourbon’s 51% or more corn.

There are actually other types of American Whiskey that don’t fit the definition for Bourbon or Rye, such as whiskey with a majority grain of wheat, or whiskeys with grain mixes that don’t possess corn or rye in the majority of the mix, and whiskeys that are aged or barreled differently than the requirements defined for Bourbon and Rye.  These factors are all important taste elements, without a doubt.

Another key element of how a whiskey will taste is its age in barrel, and this is especially true when it comes to Rye. All other factors being equal, rye grain imparts a spicy character to the whiskey flavor, while corn tends toward a sweetness.  Because of rye grain’s inherent characteristics, age in barrel is not one factor you want to be equal: Rye Whiskey benefits—even demands—longer barrel aging to soften the spice bit.

Rye Whiskey’s long run of popularity is well-earned, as Ryes are flavorful and complex. But Rye Whiskey’s high demand has created pressure to get product to market, and Rye Whiskey sitting in a barrel is Rye Whiskey not on the shelves being bought by customers.

This tasting looks at the range of Rye Whiskeys, from low-rye grain mashes, to high rye, and will explore what aging does to Rye Whiskey, including the taste characteristics of very young Rye Whiskey. We’ll explore what to look for when buying Rye Whiskey, and how to know when the distiller is more serious about his or her quality of product than next quarter’s sales volume.

BARREL SIZE KIND OF MATTERS, BUT AGE RULES ALL

There’s been an explosion of new craft distilleries, and that is a good thing.  Except when the market pressure such a distillery faces, which is mainly to get income from selling whiskey as soon as possible, opposed by the need for whiskey to age in barrel. Bourbons, especially high-corn mash bill Bourbons, can take less time in barrel and still taste pretty good—more burn, sure, but the flavor will be recognizable of Bourbon. Rye, on the other hand, has no such luck: a young Rye will seem harsher than the same aged Bourbon, mainly because of the rye grain’s taste characteristic of spice, which can add pepper spice burn to the harshness.  Ryes can suffer yet further from gross immaturity in that a “grassiness” can be a major flavor note, and, unfortunately, the grass notes tend to be weird, as if a bit spunky (“herbaceous” is the more polite way of describing this young Rye characteristic).

There is a growing practice of using small barrels (13 gallon, as opposed to the standard 53 gallon) to “accelerate” aging, the though being that the smaller barrel provides more whiskey volume-to-barrel surface exposure.  This seems to work, although not that well except for imparting a darker color, which suggests a longer-aged barreling. The taste of thus-aged whiskey? Not so much improvement.

DISTILLERS AND NON-DISTILLER PRODUCERS

It is important to know that there are many Bourbons and Ryes (and other types of whiskey) made by a sourced distillery but branded and bottled by other distilleries and NDP (non-distiller producer) that contract the sourced distillery to specify grain mash, barreling, and aging, although some NDPs simply take receipt of the initial distillation product, barrel it themselves, and determine age, proof, and the bottling..  Excluding micro-distillers (who rarely sell in bulk), virtually all of America’s whiskey is made at 13 distilleries owned by eight companies, including all of the NDP whiskey.

The largest producer of Ryes (by volume), and the source of many Ryes bottled by NDPs (and even, in some cases, the Rye whiskey sold by other distillers) is the old Seagrams Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is now called Midwest Grain Product (MPG).  Seagram called it quits in 2000, after first expanding into entertainment, with its purchase of MCA Inc., whose assets included Universal Studios and its theme parks. Then, following this, the company imploded, with its beverage assets wholesaled off to various industry titans, notably The Coca-Cola Company, Diageo, and Pernod Ricard.  (Universal’s television holdings were sold off to media entrepreneur Barry Diller, and the balance of the Universal entertainment empire and what was Seagram was sold to French conglomerate Vivendi in 2000.)

MGP of Indiana has one whiskey brand of its own at present (George Remus Bourbon), but otherwise sells its output to various bottlers. One primary product of MGP Indiana is a straight Rye Whiskey with a 95% rye mash bill, which is bottled under various brand names, including Angel’s Envy, Bulleit Rye, Filibuster, George Dickel Rye, High West, James E. Pepper, Redemption, Smooth Ambler, and Templeton Rye. It also produces straight Bourbon whiskey, which is sold under various brand names. These straight whiskeys are also used as the straight whiskey components in Seagram’s Seven Crown, a blended whiskey now produced by Diageo. The distillery also produces neutral spirits used in the production of Seagram-branded gin and vodka, now owned by Pernod Ricard.

THE TASTING

Six Rye Whiskeys are presented in today’s tasting and have been selected to showcase the range of flavor characteristics, including the consequences of mash bills and aging.

After each tasting, pour some water into your tasting glass and take some sips. This helps clears your palate, rinses the glass for the next whiskey, and helps with hydration.

The sample pours are ¾ ounce, which is enough for a straight taste that allows the volume to get a sense of the “mouth feel,” but should also leave enough of the whiskey left to try it with some ice.  Water “opens” up whiskeys, but which is meant that other flavor elements and a softness becomes noticeable.

  1. Bulleit Straight Mash Rye: High-Rye Rye

Bulleit is an odd duck in distilling, an example of a popular brand that isn’t actually made by the brand owner, an example of the aforementioned NDP.

Tom Bulleit started the Bulleit brand in 1987. The original Bulleit looked much different than the bottle we know today.  Ancient Age distillery (Buffalo Trace distillery DSP-KY-113) produced the first bottles of Bulleit Bourbon. The Bulleit brand was acquired by Diageo. Diageo extended the contract with Four Roses to remain as the source for Bulleit Bourbon. This contract survived serval ownership changes for Four Roses, which is now owned by Kirin. Bulleit Rye, introduced in March 2011, is sourced from MPG.

In 2014, the Bulleit Experience opened at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shively, KY. Believing in the brand, Diageo dropped $10 million on the new Bulleit visitors center. Bulleit is set to see even more changes in 2017 with the Bulleit distillery set to open Shelby County Kentucky.

Bulliet Rye has gained a reputation as a great cocktail Rye, with good reason.  The high rye mash bill gives this whiskey a robust spiciness, is well-made, a good proof, and so stands up well in cocktails.

Producer: MPG (Diageo contract)

Mash Bill: 95% Rye; 5 % malted barley

Age Statement: ~4-6 Year

Proof: 90

Tasting Notes: Nose presents the rye profile of pepper and citrus sweetness; palate starts sweet and syrupy on the tip of the tongue, candied peaches, and vanilla, followed viscous syrupy texture that bring black pepper and cinnamon/clove spices on the back of the tongue; finish is medium, with the pepper ongoing, until met with fruity sweet accompaniment.

Price: $25-$32

  1. Sazarec: High-Corn Rye

Back in 1869 Thomas H Handy bought a bar called The Sazerac Coffee House where a cocktail know as the Sazerac was being made with Cognac, Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe, some sugar and a twist of lemon. After purchasing the “coffee house” (i.e., bar) Mr.Handy began importing, acquiring, marketing, and selling different brands of liquor. Eventually the Sazarec cocktail got switched to using Rye instead of Cognac and the brand of Rye whiskey used in it became known as Sazerac Rye and the rest is delicious history. (Source: The Whiskey Jug, Josh Peters)

The Sazerac 6 Year Rye Whiskey, known as “Baby Saz,” is distilled and bottled by the Buffalo Trace Distillery. It’s known as Baby Saz because of its famed older brother and member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Sazerac 18. While current bottling of Sazerac 18 is not yet distilled by Buffalo Trace, the mashbills are very similar if not, indeed, exact. The rye mash bill used in Baby Saz is approximately 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malt.  (Source: Bourbonr.com)

Producer: Buffalo Trace, a Sazerac Company

Mash Bill: 39% corn; 51% rye; 0% wheat; 10% barley (unconfirmed)

Age Statement: 6 Year

Proof: 90

Tasting Notes: Nose has Lemon zest and citrus up front but yielding to black pepper burst, with caramel, peach and clove following; Palate is classic rye burst of black pepper and cinnamon, some citrus and fruit, then back to the black pepper rye on the tail; Finish is short to medium, crisp, and dry, with light oak and char.

Price: $30

  1. Rittenhouse (BiB): Bottled-in-Bond

What is “Bottled in Bond”? From Wikipedia:

Bottled-in-bond is a label for an American-made distilled beverage that has been aged and bottled according to a set of legal regulations contained in the United States government’s Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, as originally laid out in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. A reaction to widespread adulteration in American whiskey, the act made the federal government the guarantor of a spirit’s authenticity, gave producers a tax incentive for participating, and helped ensure proper accounting and the eventual collection of the tax that was due. While the regulations apply to all spirits, in practice, most bonded spirits are whiskeys.

To be labeled as bottled-in-bond or bonded, the liquor must be the product of one distillation season (January–June or July–December) by one distiller at one distillery. It must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume). The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled. Only spirits produced in the United States may be designated as bonded.

Rittenhouse is another high-corn Rye Whiskey, and may be, second only to Old Overholt, one of the most widely available American Rye whiskeys.  Well-priced, tasty, and at 100 proof, Rittenhouse is the other Rye “go-to” for cocktails (the other Bulliet Rye) among the craft cocktail cognescetti. As a high-corn Rye, Rittenhouse is a good transition route for those, for instance, who like their Bourbon Manhattans, but who are curious about what Rye brings to this classic cocktail.  In other words, Rittenhouse is an affordable, well-made, lively “gateway” Rye.

Producer: Heaven Hills

Mash Bill: Corn: 35%; Rye: 51%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 14%

Age Statement: 4 Year

Proof: 100

Tasting Notes: Nose has sweet, citrusy notes, with vanilla, caramel, and oak; Palate is rich spice, with honey, butterscotch and ripe fruit, a hint of tobacco, and red and black pepper spices; Finish is long, with cinnamon and clove, and some citrus notes.

Price: $23-$27

SIDEBAR: OLD OVERHOLT

Old Overholt, said to be America’s oldest continually maintained brand of whiskey, was founded in West Overton, Pennsylvania, in 1810. Old Overholt is a rye whiskey distilled by A. Overholt & Co., currently a subsidiary of Beam Suntory, which is a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings of Osaka, Japan. It is produced at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. It is one of the most commonly available straight rye whiskies in the U.S. It is aged for three years and bottled at 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). There is a four-year Bottled-In-Bond, 100 proof version that was released in late 2017, but this has not been widely available, nor widely reviewed.

Old Overholt is drinkable and is very inoffensiveness; in fact, one of its big shortcomings is that the flavor is simple, lacking the complexity that makes Rye so compelling, while the low proof further reduces its flavor experience  Old Overholt Rye is less useful in cocktails as the whiskey can get over-shadowed by other ingredients.  Some people find Old Overholt to have an “oily” mouth feel.

  1. Mad River Revolution Rye: Young Rye

Mad River Distillery’s Revolution Rye is a great story, parts of it found on their website, quoted below:

We started the distillery in 2011 on a 150 year old farm nestled in the heart of the Green Mountains.  Mad River Distillers is committed to making spirits that celebrate local producers and sustainable agriculture and we distill all of our spirits by hand and from scratch.  All of our grains are sourced regionally from non-GMO sources, and we use Vermont ingredients when available. The sugar in our rum is fair trade certified and sustainably harvested.  The water for our fermentations is drawn from a pure mountain spring on our farm. Our focus is producing spirits with character.  We believe that the spirits we distill should be a reflection of the grains and fruit from which they are drawn.  As a craft distiller, we are small batch producers.

At MRD we believe in doing things the old-fashioned way—starting at the beginning with freshly milled rye and spring water, fermenting on grain and distilling to take only the hearts of the run before barreling in new American charred oak. We use an “all rye” mash bill, with a portion of “toasted rye” which releases aromatic chocolate and mocha notes into the distillate.

Unfortunately, there is one old-fashioned item missing: the Rye is too young. “Aged at least six months” is the closest thing there is to an age statement, and while the distillery uses 13 gallon barrels, that only accelerates color absorption, with little contribution for flavor ageing effect.  There are not a lot of reviews out there for this product, but here’s one from the typically solid Thewhiskeywash.com:

As the flavor unfolds, the cocoa notes make a brief appearance but are pretty quickly overpowered by bitter grassy notes. The finish is grassy, dry, bitter, and unfortunately lingering.

This “bitter grassy” note may also be described as “herbaceous,” but I like “spunky,” as in what the sopping wet grass clumps you scrape off the bottom of the lawnmower deck might taste like.

There are, unfortunately for the Rye market, quite a few too-young Ryes out and about. While it is understandable that a distillery wants sales as soon as possible, releasing such young Ryes is more likely to hurt the Rye category overall by turning off drinkers whose first tastes of Rye carries the bitter grassy notes.

Producer: Mad River Distillery

Mash Bill:  100%Rye (mix ratio of three rye varietals, including chocolate malted rye and toasted rye is unknown)

Age Statement: 1 Year or less

Proof: 96

Tasting Notes: Nose has strong hay and cereal grain notes, and overpoweringly grassy, with faint cocoa notes; Palate provides cereal grain notes on the front, then a bit of cocoa notes quickly overpowered by bitter grassy notes; Finish is grassy, dry, bitter, and lingering.

Price: $45

[From the ‘Just Goes to Show You’ department: There were several participants who found Revolution Rye to their liking, and the cocoa nose was widely sensed. My exploration of the consequences of short-aged Rye is therefore ongoing.]

  1. Dry Fly Straight Triticale Whiskey: Hybrid Rye/Wheat Whiskey

What is Triticale? Triticale is a hybrid of rye and wheat, first bred in the mid-1870s in Scotland with the intention of combining the high-yield, grain quality, and disease resistance of wheat with the hardiness of rye.  Dry Fly Distilling is located in Spokane, Washington, and triticale grows well there.

Dry Fly is an example of a small independent distiller that has made the commitment to adequate aging. Their Straight Triticale Whiskey is unusual, but a bona fide Rye drinking point, both because of the unique (as far as I can determine) mash bill, and because the whiskey represents an unusual distiller in terms of location.

Producer: Dry Fly Distilling

Mash Bill: 100% Tritcale

Age Statement: 5-7 Year

Proof: 88

Tasting Notes: Nose is first burnt sugar and baking spices dominate, but also slightly sour bakery aromas, with sweet vanilla custard, bubblegum, and caramel, softening into cinnamon and fresh-cut grass; palate presents bright lemon tartness, with cinnamon, clove, and white pepper, and hint of dried apricot following; finish is young but flavorful, with hints of brown sugar, green oak, and a hint of agave.

Price: $35-$45

  1. High West Double Rye: Young/Old-High-Rye Rye/High-Corn Rye Blend

High West, a brand that has done well in the marketplace and that has put together a range of distinct whiskeys; it has become a distiller in its own right, and the first distillery in Utah since the end of Prohibition.  Some of its whiskey is sourced and some distilled and aged on site. It first product was Silver Whiskey Western Oat, “an un-aged oat whiskey (akin to a blanco tequila) with a mash bill containing 85% oats and 15% barley malt.”

Their approach to whiskey is atypical—this company has specialized in blending whiskeys, some of which continue to be sourced from other distillers, although the company has been building up its own distillery capacity.

This Rye blend uses a relatively young 95% rye mashbill distillation from MPG, mixed with an unusual (and hard-to-buy retail) 16 year old Rye from Barton 1792 Distillery. Barton Brands, Ltd. was a company that produced a variety of distilled beverages and liqueurs and is now part of the Sazerac Company, which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana, and has its principal offices in Louisville, Kentucky. The Barton distillery, currently known as the Barton 1792 distillery, was originally established in 1879, and is located in Bardstown, Kentucky. Some of Barton’s better-known brands and products have included the 1792 Bourbon, Kentucky Tavern, and Very Old Barton bourbons; Fleischmann’s, Skol, and Wave Vodkas; the 99 line of schnapps (99 Apples, 99 Bananas, etc.); Calypso and Barton rums; Capitan, El Toro, and Montezuma tequilas; and Mr. Boston and Fleischmann’s gins. In 1993, Barton was acquired by Canandaigua Wine Company, later Constellation Brands, In 2009, Constellation sold Barton to the Sazerac Company.

Producer: High West, distilled at MPG and Barton 1792 Distillery

Mash Bill: (2 Year, from MPG) Corn: 0%; Rye: 95%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 5% and (16 Year, from Barton) Corn: 37%; Rye: 53%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 10% (unconfirmed)

Age Statement:  Mix of 2 Year and 16 Year

Proof: 92

Tasting Notes: Nose has rye spice, apple cinnamon, brewed apple cider, and mint; palate offers botanicals, anise, and the spice of a rye; Finish is lingering spice.

Price: $30-$35

SIDEBAR: THE GREAT WAREHOUSE COLLAPSE

[From “RIP 18,000 Barrels of Booze at Kentucky’s Barton 1792 Distillery: After two warehouse collapses, nearly one million gallons of alcohol might not be salvageable,” by Erin DeJesus, Jul 5, 2018, 2:06pm EDT]

On June 22, drinkers in Kentucky mourned the collapse of a warehouse at Bardstown, Kentucky’s Barton 1792 Distillery, which affected 9,000 barrels of different aging spirits. The average barrel, according to USA Today, holds 53 gallons, making the potential net loss from that initial collapse 477,000 gallons of booze — not to mention the local environmental impact. The spillage, which leaked into a nearby stream and river, is blamed for killing as many as 1,000 fish, and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet plans to cite the distillery’s owner for failing to report the incident in a timely manner.

Then, on the Fourth of July, the other half of that same warehouse came crashing to the ground, resulting in the potential loss of another 9,000 barrels, another 477,000 gallons. Thankfully, no one was hurt in either collapse.

 

FOR FURTHER STUDY

Number Ten is adding about a dozen Ryes to the new Whiskey List, although most of the Ryes noted below are drawn from our First American Whiskey List.  Wild Turkey (Campari Group) had been one of the under-appreciated Rye distillers, although in the last two years or so market interest in the company’s Ryes—and especially Wild Turkey Straight Rye 101—has led to availability problems.  (Wild Turkey also makes Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Straight Rye.)

Jim Beam (Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings) is also a significant Rye distiller, and especially in its recent expansion of its Basil Hayden line. Basil Hayden Dark Rye is a blend of Ryes finished with port; the newest offering, Basil Hayden Two by Two, is another blend approach, this time mixing two different aged Ryes with two differently aged Bourbons. Beam’s (ri)1 does the job of confusing everyone with the name; the Rye itself is okay, but a bit rough, perhaps.

For my money, one of the best deals in Rye is Wild Turkey Straight Rye 101, which runs in the $30-$35 range, retail (liter bottle).  While the 81-proof version of this Rye is good, the characteristics of Rye emerge much more clearly with a couple of added years in the barrel; 81 comes off more floral, while 101 carries the rye spice profile with more complexity and flavor, while also holding its own much better in cocktails.

But then, it is all a matter of taste, said the lady as she kissed the cow.

Here is some information on other Ryes you might like to try:

(ri)1, Rye Whiskey

Producer: Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings

Mash Bill: N/A

Age Statement: ~4-5 Year

Proof: 92

Tasting Notes: Nose has a floral aspect, with some caramel and oak, cinnamon and pepper spice, with dried fruit, leather; palate carries hint of evergreen and mint, orange peel, and caramel and vanilla balanced with spice; finish is moderate, with some astringency, with lingering rye spice and prominent oak.

Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Straight Rye

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 31%; Rye: 51%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: 4 Year-plus

Proof: 110

Tasting Notes: Nose presents baking spices, caramel, raison, hints of menthol and/or herbs; Palate is thin, and mainly black pepper and other hot spice including cinnamon and nutmeg, and some caramel;

Finish is short to medium long with lingering spice and pepper, hint of baking spices.

Wild Turkey Straight Rye 81

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 37%; Rye: 51%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: 4 Year

Proof: 81

Tasting Notes: Nose has a sweet start, floral with moderate spice, and vanilla, honey, spiced cider, and toast notes; Palate is oaky, caramel and orchard fruit, with honey carrying through, with hint of charcoal; Finish is moderate, astringent, with rye spice, oak and char ending with dark fruit.

Wild Turkey Straight Rye 101

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 37%; Rye: 51%; Wheat: 0%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: 6 Year Plus

Proof: 101

Tasting Notes: Nose is lively with caramel, honey, grain, with hints of mint, baking spices, and oak; Palate has a lot of rye spice and grain, with hints of mint, oatmeal, and baked apple; Finish is medium, hot, spicy, cinnamon, trailing off with wood notes.

 

 

Basil Hayden Dark Rye

Producer: Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings

Mash Bill: N/A. A blend of American straight Rye, Canadian Rye, and a “splash” of California port.

Age Statement: N/A

Proof: 80

Tasting Notes: Nose presents mild rye spice and strong caramel and molasses notes, then butterscotch and raisin/black cherry dark fruit notes; palate offers grain and dark fruit, along with butterscotch and cocoa nib; finish is medium, with a spice and port notes fade.

Basil Hayden Two by Two

Producer: Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings

Mash Bill: N/A. A blend of 5 year old straight Kentucky Rye, 7 year old “high rye” straight Kentucky Rye, 6 year old straight Kentucky Bourbon and 13 year old straight Kentucky Bourbon.

Age Statement: N/A

Proof: 80

Tasting Notes: Nose offers oak, rye spice, and banana, with brown sugar and vanilla lingering; Palate has some sweetness with oak and wood, then hints of vanilla, bubble gum, and peanut; Finish is tannic, dry, leather, and hint of nuts.

 

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