Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rye Whiskey Tasting

My favorite rye - which I like so much that it's become a category killer for me - is Riverboat. It's something of a fluke. The makers were aiming to create a cheap bottom-shelf product for bartenders to use in cocktails, so it's young, unfiltered, unrefined, and, quite by accident, incredibly delicious. Persuaded to market it as a consumer product, it costs around $20/bottle and everyone I serve it to goes crazy for it. Which makes it awfully hard to justify paying much more for rye.

But most of the others do cost more - some way more. The most expensive, WhistlePig at $65, was among my least-favorite. And a brand I'd always regarded as near-rotgut, Old Overholt, though flawed, beat the competition in one respect (its long, long finish). With spirits, you don't necessarily get what you pay for!

We sampled everything blind, which led to some surprises, none more startling than the positive reaction to Old Overholt. And High West, though an old favorite of mine, was even better than expected (their double rye blends an intense 2-year-old rye with a smooth 16-year-old. As they put it, "the older rye has a 'barely legal' rye mashbill of 53% rye and 37% corn. The extra age and corn provides some extra sweetness to calm the "bite" of the younger rye"). I was certainly taken aback by the poor showing of the Rittenhouse, but suspect this might have been an off bottle.

Here's the upshot:

Most friendly rye: Riverboat
Most fun rye: High West
Most stately/deep rye: Willett

Here are the tasting notes, in the order in which we tasted:

Riverboat, $21
Lots of rye character, but it's all the high mid-range flavors - no deeper/darker flavors. This makes for a friendly character and easy/breezy drinking. Sweetness is exactly, precisely what it needs to be. Aftertaste is well-baked cookies. This would work incredibly well with a wide range of foods.

Old Overholt, $15
Very little aroma, and the flavor itself starts out confined and chintzy, tasting like tongue depressor sticks. But then it all opens up into a beautifully long, deep, round finish which hardly seems like it belongs to the same drink.

WhistlePig, $65
An intense, concentrated, in-your-face wallop of flavor, including some off notes (I suspect they're not careful with their grain bill - the important procedure of inspecting the grain delivered to the distillery). No structure, just that big vulgar hit, and, unsurprisingly, the finish is muddled, finally leaving a sticky candy-ish aftertaste in the mouth.

Willett, $35
Nice spicy aroma. Flavor is as intense as WhistlePig - rich, broad, and bracing - but it's also meticulously clean and refined and multi-layered. So much deeper, and light years more elegant. This one's a ride, a tad bombastic but classy all the way. A Wagnerian opera in a glass!

Rittenhouse, $25
Turkish taffy aroma. Just not much here; can't really find much to observe, much less appreciate. No elegance or depth, just gestures of rye flavor.

High West Double Rye, $35
Smells like Chanel perfume, but not in a bad way. Lots of flavor drama (nearly as operatic as the Willett, though nowhere near as deep), all against a unified background structure which I compared to a string section holding a long note while the brass and woodwinds blast. A wild and delicious ride.

Catoctin Creek Organic Roundstone Rye, $40
I get skeptical whenever I see the term "organic" appearing where it doesn't belong. And, indeed, I found myself missing all the yummy toxins and pesticides. Or something. This one's lackluster and unworthy.


Barry said...

Didn't know you were a rye drinker, Jim.

I'm a big fan of High West's ryes, and I'm grateful for the pointer to Riverboat, which I've never tasted. The NC ABC system doesn't stock it, but next time I make up an out-of-state liquor order, I'll toss a bottle of that in the cart.

A couple you didn't mention:

Bulleit is a very accessible and affordable rye whiskey, and honestly, I think plain old Jim Beam Rye, at $20 a bottle, is one of the better values in the liquor store.

James Leff said...

Barry, this was a tasting of eyes on hand. We indeed excluded some good ones (and bad ones).

With Riverboat at $21 and a few others selling for not much more, I have no use for Jim Beam rye (as I do for Jim Beam black label bourbon, which fills an otherwise empty price range).

I like Bulleit a lot better than Beam, but I don't love it, and it costs more than Riverboat, which I do love. So......

James Leff said...

"Ryes", not "eyes"!

Barry said...

Oh, one more note: Leopold Bros, a small artisan distillery based in Denver, just released a really interesting "Maryland-style" rye whiskey... going back to 18th/19th century American whiskey-making tradition. Really peppery and floral and with a finish for *miles*.

Barry said...

(When paired with their very fine absinthe, it makes a Sazerac cocktail for the ages.)

sku said...

Great tasting! As a matter of background, Riverboat is distilled by Midwest Grain Products, a large contract distiller in Indiana which also makes Bulleit, Templeton and many other popular ryes, including the two year old rye used in High West Double Rye. They use a 95% rye mash, which is much higher than any of the Kentucky ryes (though lower than the 100% ryes made in Canada, such as WhistlePig).

Overholt is Beam Rye with a bit more time in the barrel.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for the posting! I've replied here:

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