We’re in the midst of a rye whiskey renaissance. It was not too long ago that rye whiskies were pretty rare beasts, but during the past five years there’s been a boom in the number of rye whiskies that are available. What’s more, a lot of these are very good whiskies. Consider some of the highlights:
- Van Winkle 13-year
- Rittenhouse 21-, 23-year, and 25-year
- Black Maple Hill 18- and 23-year
- Sazerac 18-year and 6-year Thomas Handy cask-strength
Across the board, these are fabulous whiskies, attaining heights and complexities of flavor often reserved for only fine scotch and the very best bourbons. And following in the wake of these whiskies are a whole family of ryes from a wide variety of distilleries. Small, micro-distillers such as Tuthilltown in New York and Grand Traverse in Michigan are releasing high quality, small-batch ryes. And there are a handful of ryes coming out from independent bottlers that are receiving a lot of praise. In the past couple of months alone, Malt Advocate editor John Hansell has written about 5 different ryes. Significant, considering that rye is essentially just a niche in the broader whisk(e)y market.
High West is a distillery located in Park City who are participating in this rye renaissance in a dual role: as both distiller and bottler. The distillery was founded in 2007 by David Perkins, and shortly thereafter released their first bottles of rye whiskey. Young distilleries such as High West have two options open to them when it comes to releasing their first whiskies. They can either wait until the whiskey that they’ve distilled is ready for release, and perhaps take steps to speed the aging process, as Tuthilltown does with their small casks (3, 5, and 7-gallon). Or they can buy whiskey from other distilleries, and release it under their own label as whiskey “bottled by” them as opposed to “distilled by” them.
With their rye whiskey, High West chose the latter option, purchasing stocks of 6-, 16-, and 21-year old rye whiskey, and releasing three separate bottlings. The Rendezvous Rye is a blend of 6-year and 16-year rye, and was released alongside solo bottlings of the 16-year and 21-year rye. All told, the three are rather unique whiskies. The 6-year was distilled from a mash containing 95% rye, and the 16-year from a mash containing 80% rye, both much higher percentages than you typically encounter. The 21-year is the most typical rye of the three, distilled from a mash containing 53% rye. But it’s still unusual in that it spent all of its time aging in used barrels. The provenance of the three whiskies remains a mystery, despite rumors and guessing by some whiskey writers and bloggers. Most likely, the 6- and 16-year ryes were intended to be used as flavoring whiskies, since no other distillery has ever released such older stocks of high-rye whiskies before (besides Anchor Steam, and these whiskies aren’t from them), and it’s possible, yet doubtful, that one or both of them were distilled in Canada. What it comes down to, is that at this point, we don’t know where they come from.
What we do know is that they’re pretty nice whiskies.
This whiskey is bottle #1007 from batch #49, and it’s bottled at 46%.
In the glass, Rendezvous Rye is soft gold with amber highlights. The nose is interesting, intriguing. There’s the spicy nuttiness of tequila, along with chili pepper, black pepper, mint, mustard seed, shallots, and a hint of burnt sugar. The palate has a soft, mellow texture with some youthful heat on the backside. There are flavors of almonds, citrus, and spicy mint, supported by a sweet foundation of honey, caramel, and vanilla. The finish is medium-length with notes of demerera sugar, limes, spicines, and cocoa dust.
This is rye whiskey – vibrant, lively, spicy, and of a fiery temperament. It’s brash and electric in the glass, and is unlike any other American whiskey I’ve tasted, the only nearest point of comparison being Anchor Steam’s 100% rye whiskey. You can really taste the powerful presence of the 6-year old, 95% rye, and definitely come away with the impression of depth brought to the mix by the 16-year, 80% rye. All in all, the mix of the two whiskies is well-done, and blends their features nicely.
I have to admit, this whiskey took some getting used to. The rye component is so hugely pronounced, and I didn’t find the whiskey as a whole to be very well balanced. But, taste is very subjective, and so you should also check out John Hansell’s review of this whiskey, which is very positive. I agree with him when he said, “in the end, the rye is the victor, emerging with a vengeance and giving the whisky a bold, warming spice finish”. Yet, this left me wanting for something I couldn’t put my finger on.
This bourbon created quite a stir when it hit the market last year, which was somewhat surprising, given that it comes from McLain & Kyne, distillers of Jefferson’s Reserve. Not that they’re a bad distillery, just that their flagship product is a solid, if generally unexceptional whiskey. But the Jefferson’s Presidential Select began making waves the moment that it hit the shelves.
The reason is due to the provenance of the whiskey in the bottle. This 17-year old bourbon was not distilled by McLain & Kyne, but was bottled by them. They purchased several barrels of whiskey distilled from no less than the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery of Louisville, Kentucky, the same distillery renowned as the place where the oldest bottles of Pappy Van Winkle whiskies were distilled. Along with the 15-, 20-, and 23-year old Pappy Van Winkles, previously available bottlings of W.L. Weller bourbon also came from this distillery. Needless to say, that’s a heck of a pedigree.
But, note the similarities between those two whiskies, Van Winkle and Weller. See it? That’s right, they’re both wheated bourbons, two of the very small handful of wheated bourbons on the market today. The Stitzel-Weller Distillery produced solely wheated whiskey throughout its history, beginning when it was opened by Pappy Van Winkle himself in Spring 1935. Throughout the following decades the whiskey produced here gradually garnered a strong reputation. Yet, sadly, the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company and the distillery were sold in 1971, sold again in 1991, and closed for good in 1992. Since then, whiskies from this distillery have gained an aura that only time and scarcity can grant, and today they are highly sought after.
Thus the surprise in the whiskey world when this bourbon arrived on the scene. Even noted bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery mused,
“Now I wish they would tell us how they got these particular barrels…The company now known as Diageo was the last operator of Stitzel-Weller. It still owns the facility and uses the warehouses. Both Heaven Hill and Buffalo Trace got some Stitzel-Weller barrels when they bought Old Fitzgerald and W. L. Weller respectively. No one has ever been quite sure how much Diageo retained. Did they really mean to age it 17 years or more? How did McLain & Kyne get it?”
And John Hansell, editor of the Malt Advocate referred to these bottles of whiskey as “a piece of history”, noting:
“To me, Stitzel-Weller and Michter’s are like Brora and Port Ellen in the Scotch whisky world–silent distilleries that once produced some great whiskeys.”
Illustrious company to be sure! Even better, across the board the whiskey was getting wonderful reviews. Cowdery had noted that other recently released whiskies from this famed distillery had been influenced by perhaps “too much wood”, a common issue with older bourbons. Because bourbons age so much more quickly than scotch whiskies, and the barrels used are brand new, older bourbons can often appear too woody, with the oak notes overwhelming the whisky’s flavor spectrum. So, to have John Hansell proclaim this as being one of his whiskies of the year is pretty significant.
And so, after some hemming and hawing, I hitched up my trousers, made my way down the road, and picked up a bottle of what promised to be an exciting experience, both gastronomically and intellectually!
This bottle is from the 4th batch of Jefferson’s Presidential Select, and is bottle number 716. It was distilled in the Fall of 1991, and bottled in 2008 at 47%.
The whiskey is amber in color with glinting gold highlights. The nose is very rich, with a personality that leaps out of the glass displaying notes of polished wood, dark honey, toffee, pecan pie, berries, lots of fruit, cinnamon, and maple syrup. The palate has a velvety texture with mouth-coatingly rich flavors of caramel, sultana raisins, toffee, mesquite honey, almonds, and spices. There is a resiny dryness that is present throughout, while not being overwhelming. Instead, it functions more as a counter-balance to the rich spectrum of flavors, giving evidence of the whiskey’s age without detracting from the flavors in the glass. The finish is medium-length, with flavors of honey, caramel, almonds, and just a hint of citrus.
This is the most expensive bourbon that I’ve bought, and I’ll admit that it’s taken me a bit to come to terms with that. I resolutely believe that one of the beauties of bourbon is how affordable it is to purchase absolutely stellar bottles of whiskey, and this bottle no doubt pushed my comfort level. But I have to admit that I’m very happy to have a tasted whiskey from this famed distillery. Given the degree to which I appreciate whiskey, this is a great experience on many levels.
Would I recommend this? Absolutely. It is indeed a piece of history, along with being a very, very good whiskey in its own right.
There are times when your just interested in having a whiskey. When what is called for is not a special single-cask or cask-strength bottling, or a rare whisky that you got a sample of from a friend, or that bottle of 30-year old Glenfarclas that really warrants a special occasion. No, in those instances what is called for is a straight-up, no-frills whiskey. A whiskey that doesn’t ask for contemplation, but for you to simply enjoy it.
But it still has to be a good whiskey. One that you can enjoyably sip while watching a movie, reading a book, or spending time with friends. One that doesn’t sear your palate with its raw alcohol, its youth. One that is dynamic and offers more than one dimension to your palate. Basically, one that both tastes good, and isn’t boring.
See, the problem here is that the special whiskies in your collection have raised the bar high, and you can’t just go back to Jack-and-Cokes. The whiskey you’ll turn to in those moments where you’re just looking for a good ol’ whiskey has to at least harken to the other, more dynamic and memorable whiskies that you drink on other occasions. Otherwise, the reality is that it’ll just be too much of a stretch, and the chances that you’ll enjoy it just too small.
Given my growing fondness for wheated bourbons, I decided to give a bottle of Maker’s Mark a chance. I’d only tried it on a couple of occasions before, and so I was unsure of how it would work out. But I have to say, I’m pretty impressed at how well this whiskey stands up in the glass. My expectations were mixed, but I’ve really grown to like this whisky.
On February 26th 1954, Bill Samuels fired up the stills at his newly refurbished distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Five years later, in 1959, the first bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon went on sale. This was the culmination of Samuels’ efforts in setting up his new distillery, aided along the way by Pappy Van Winkle – who provided Samuels with the recipe for the wheated bourbon distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery -, Dan Street of Brown-Forman, Ed Shapira of Heaven Hill, and Jere Beam of Jim Beam. Along with advice and knowledge, each of these distilleries offered yeast samples to Samuels, as he worked to settle on the final recipe for his new bourbon. Van Winkle also provided samples of new make bourbon, so that Samuels and his distillers would know how wheated bourbon should taste when coming off the stills. In Bourbon Straight, Charles Cowdery writes that, “[Samuels] always intended to make a wheat recipe bourbon because he preferred that flavor, but he had his own ideas about how to do it. Mostly his collaborators kept him out of trouble.”*
Maker’s Mark has essentially stuck to offering one product throughout its history. There have been occasional special bottlings released in limited supply and largely only at the distillery, and a “Black Wax” Maker’s Mark Select that was sold in Duty Free and limited export markets (but not in the U.S.). But for all intents and purposes, the red wax Maker’s Mark is the distillery’s only product. (Until recently that is. Last month was announced the upcoming release of Maker’s Mark 46.)
Maker’s Mark is roughly six years old when bottled. According to Cowdery, they use 1000 gallon tanks for blending together the different barrels that make up any given batch, whereas most distilleries use much larger tanks for this purpose. This is indicative of the consistency of their barrels, since they don’t need to blend nearly as many of them as other distilleries do in order to achieve a consistent flavor.
The whiskey is the color of well-polished gold with a subtle amber tint. The nose has notes of pepper, butterscotch, honey, and a pointed hint of citrus that really highlights the softer, sweeter flavors. The mouthfeel is soft and lightly textured, with a whiff of heat that gives a sense of its youth. The flavors are sweeter than the nose, with high-toned sugars and caramel mingled with candied orange peel and an interesting golden raisin element, underscored by spicy, resiny notes. The finish has warm flavors of custard, salted caramel, vanilla, and lingering molasses and caramel brittle. The finish is very nice, a solid ending to this whiskey.
All things told, Maker’s Mark proves to be an easy-drinking whiskey, entirely suitable for sipping, and a good buffer between you and your more special bottles. Interestingly, this bottle has been open for 1-2 months, and during that time the whiskey has really softened. It’s not quite as brash as it was when the bottle was first opened. A glass tonight has more softness, and rounder sweetness than the whiskey initially had when I opened the bottle. I also found this recently with a bottle of Van Winkle 12-year. So, take that for what you will. Nice to know that you don’t have to rush through a bottle of these two whiskies.
All in all, this makes me look forward to trying the “46″ bottling that they will be putting out soon. It also makes me pine for the opportunity to try the Black Wax Maker’s Mark (an older version of Maker’s Mark), which has been spoken of very highly by folks such as John Hansell of the Malt Advocate.
*This quote and much of the other information in this paragraph comes from Cowdery’s excellent book, Bourbon Straight.
As time passes and my taste in bourbon evolves, I find myself increasingly attracted to wheated bourbons. The Weller Antique Collection and Pappy Van Winkle 15, are two of my favorites, possessing such smooth grace and beguiling personality in the glass. All the same, each time I taste Four Roses bourbon I’m surprised at the complexity this whiskey has. Not because I don’t expect it, I know this is top-shelf whiskey. But because I forget just how articulate and curious it is, how each sip reveals a new flavor or a different nuance.
Four Roses employs two different mashbills and five different yeasts to achieve this complexity. Their mashbills both have unusually high percentages of rye in them, one with 20% rye (code OE), the other 35% (code OB). The yeasts, identified by codes, all impart unique flavors to the whisky:
- V – Delicate fruity flavor
- K – Slight spicy character
- O – Robust fruitiness
- Q – Floral essence
- F – Light herbal essence
In turn, they age all of their whiskey in single-story warehouses, in order to ensure that all of the barrels develop evenly. Because they have up to 10 different recipes to call on when blending their whiskeys, they don’t need to use multi-story warehouses as other distilleries do.
Best of all, the range of bottlings that they release explicitly highlights the uniqueness of their production methods. The Small Batch includes four different recipes, the Single Barrel contains one (the OBSV), and then they have occasional special releases. The past couple of years they’ve released a unique, cask-strength single barrel bottling that uses a different recipe than the regular Single Barrel. The Mariage Collection is always a blend of two or three different recipes, and was first released in 2008. Both that year’s and this one’s are a blend of different recipes.
The 2009 Mariage Collection is a blend of 3 casks:
- 10-year OBSK (high-rye, “slightly spicy character” yeast)
- 19-year OBSK
- 10-year OESO (low-rye, “robust fruitiness” yeast).
It’s bottled at cask strength, 54.8% in this case. I’m tasting bottle 709 of 3432.
The whiskey is bronze-to-light copper in color. The nose has notes of vanilla wafers, honey, resin, and citrus. The palate is rich and spicy, with layers of caramel, nougat, candied orange peels, and ripe fruit. The texture is smooth, velvety, and lively owing to the higher percentage. A dash of water mellows things out nicely, lending a fuller mouthfeel to the whisky. The finish is warming, sweet, and lingering, with flavors of oak, honey, and orange.
This is a wonderful bourbon. The spices and citrus provide some real zest to what is an otherwise lush, layered, and mellow whisky, highly drinkable. In contrast to their single barrel, this has more sweet, mellow notes, and less of an emphasis on the oak and citrus that is such a hallmark of the single barrel. Easily my favorite Four Roses so far! Be sure to grab a bottle of this if you see it. And if you see the 2008 version, grab a bottle and send it to me! I’m aching to compare the two against one another!!
As much as I enjoy rye whiskey, when it comes to bourbon my allegiances lie squarely with the “wheated” camp.
“Wheated” you say? Remember that bourbon is defined as having at least 51% corn in its mash bill. Most distilleries end up using 70-75% corn, filling in the rest with 11-13% rye and 10-12% malted barley. But there are a few whiskies that use wheat instead of rye to fill out that 11-13%. The result is a much different whiskey.
Rye lends a spicy, minty, resinous quality to bourbon that gives the whiskey a vibrancy in the glass that can be really alluring, and also enables bourbon (and rye whiskey as well) to go great in cocktails. Wheat on the other hand lends a softer, gentler, and more rounded quality to bourbon, bringing out the sweetness and giving it body and depth. Picture making caramel sauce and at the last moment having to choose between adding salt to make a salted caramel sauce, or adding another couple tablespoons of butter to add more richness. This is similar to choosing between a rye bourbon or a wheated bourbon.
And when I say that there are just a few wheated bourbons out there, I mean it. The readily available ones are Van Winkle bourbons, W.L. Weller bourbons, Maker’s Mark, and Old Fitzgerald. Maker’s Mark is certainly the most ubiquitous of these, and is a decent whiskey, just a bit young (~6 years typically). But it’s the Van Winkle and Weller bourbons that are the real showcases for wheated bourbons.
First, a little bit of history about the two labels. For several decades, both were made at the fabled Stitzel-Weller distillery, run by Pappy Van Winkle himself. The distillery closed in 1992, after which Buffalo Trace purchased the W.L. Weller label and began producing it at their Frankfort distillery. At the same time, production of Van Winkle bourbons moved to the Bernheim distillery, before Julian Van Winkle reached an agreement with Buffalo Trace to also produce the Van Winkle bourbons at their facility. So now both are produced at Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, KY.
Whiskies from the Stitzel-Weller distillery are an increasingly rare and sought after species. Just look at the prices for a bottle of Van Winkle 20 or 23 year-old! But while some folks may argue that the whiskey distilled under these names at later distilleries isn’t quite as good as the Stitzel-Weller distilled whiskey, the fact is that these are two excellent bourbons, no matter their age or where they were distilled.
As for which is a “better” bourbon, this entirely comes down to personal taste. I love wheated bourbons for how voluptuous and full-bodied they are, and how much depth of flavor they have. There are some great rye bourbons out there, but in my book wheated bourbons really take the cake. We even keep a bottle of Maker’s Mark around since it’s such a good, accessible wheater.
The Van Winkle bourbons in particular have a deservedly legendary reputation, and I’ve written about this here before. Suffice to say that the more you learn about Pappy Van Winkle and the history of this distillery, the more you appreciate the whiskies themselves!
This is the Van Winkle 12-year Lot “B”. Despite the name, there never was a Lot “A”, and there’s much open debate about what the Lot “B” means. This batch of the Lot “B” was distilled at the Bernheim distillery, sometime after 1993 and before distilling at Buffalo Trace began.
The color of this bourbon is coppery gold with nice, thick legs running down the sides. The nose has mellow notes of dark honey, marzipan, caramel, and caramelized onions. The palate is smooth and soft while still being light and lively. The alcohol is a bit hot and sharp, lending a vibrant, striking tone to the flavors that encompass classic wheated bourbon tones of vanilla, caramel, honey, and toasted almonds. On the finish, a note of citrus winds its way into the mix, alongside similar flavors as the palate, with honey and almonds being the most prominent.
A classic wheated bourbon. Surprisingly it feels a bit young on the palate, largely on account of the heat of the alcohol (despite it’s being just 45.2%). But the spectrum of wheated bourbon flavors are all there, and the result is a great sipping whiskey that won’t break the bank.