Review: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey

old overholtOld Overholt’s been making rye since well before rye was cool. Part of the Beam Suntory empire, the brand claims heritage back to 1810 and was reputedly the whiskey of choice of Doc Holliday himself.

Old Overholt is commonly used as a mixer — and is a frequent denizen of the Sazerac cocktail — but let’s take a look at how well it stands on its own two feet. While there is no official production information available (including the mashbill), some say Overholt’s trimmed its barrel time down to 4 years while simultaneously raising prices.

True or not, as of 2015 Old Overholt drinks a lot like a young, rye-heavy, mainstream bourbon. On the nose, menthol notes and some hints of leather and cloves. The body is lightly sweet, heavy on notes of cinnamon and clove, bitter roots, and some simple, sawdusty wood character. Sampled neat, Old Overholt drinks as a simple spirit, light on the tongue, a bit bitter, and with a touch of red pepper on the finish. Pleasant and cordial enough, but best as a mixer, where, true to form, it proves quite versatile.

80 proof.

B / $17 / beamsuntory.com

Review: Bender’s Whiskey Small Batch Rye 7 Years Old Batch #2

bender's whiskey

What we’ve got here is Canadian rye, aged for seven years, then shipped off to San Francisco’s Treasure Island for bottling by a craft distilling operation, Treasure Island Distillery. The label says seven years, but actually for this second batch, the mashbill has been updated (now it’s 92% 9 year old rye, 8% 13 year old corn) and, as you can see, it’s technically a nine year old spirit, not merely seven. Distilled first in a column still, it goes through a second pot distillation before aging.

Bender’s a real guy — name’s Carl Bender — and we got to try his baby.

For a seven (er, nine-plus) year old whiskey, Bender’s has a lot of youth on it. The nose offers cereal notes, but it’s tempered with menthol while being punchy with earthy, leathery, hogo notes. The body kicks things off with baking spices and a bit of apple pie character before quickly chasing those earlier earthier elements down the rabbit hole. Look for cigar box, wet leather, some mushroom, and a bit of rhubarb. Over time these seemingly disparate elements begin to meld and merge together, ultimately creating a fairly compelling whole.

In a world of interesting ryes, Bender’s finds a unique home. Worth a spin.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2, bottle #3415.

B+ / $42 / bendersrye.com

Review: Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey and Single Malt Straight Rye

old potrero 18th centuryOld Potrero is the craft distilling arm of San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling, and in addition to a number of gin and unaged whiskey products, it also produces a handful of aged spirits under the OP label.

Today we look at two extreme oddities, both made 100% malted rye, which means the rye has been partially germinated in the same way that malted barley, the key ingredient of single malt Scotch whisky, is made. Malting rye is hardly common, and that’s hardly the only trick up OP’s sleeve when it comes to producing these two spirits. It has also been pointed out that both of these whiskeys are technically “single malts,” though neither is what you would expect from the phrase.

Thoughts follow.

Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey – This is a 100% malted rye whiskey that is aged for 2 1/2 years in barrels that are not charred — by far the standard in American whiskey — but are rather merely toasted. Both new and used barrels are incorporated into the production process. It’s extremely unusual from the choice of grain to the exotic barrel program, and it shows in the finished product. At heart this is a young spirit, racy on the nose with raw wood, raw grain, and a bit of hospital character. The body is almost astringent — so much wood character has leeched into this spirit that it’s drained of just about everything else. There’s a little bit of peppery rye up front, but this fades to a fiery, almost smoky, medicinal character in the finish. It’s, sadly, difficult to really dig into. 102.4 proof. C / $65

Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye – This is another 100% malted rye whiskey, but it’s aged for 3 1/2 years in traditionally charred oak barrels. Often referred to as Old Potrero’s “19th Century Style Whiskey,” it has a more modern construction to it altogether. The nose offers the cereal character of many a craft whiskey, though there’s plenty of the medicinal funk of the 18th Century Style to go around. The palate is initially tempered nicely with sweetness — butterscotch and toffee — but this fades to a more breakfast cereal character within a few seconds. The finish brings up more of those pungent wood notes, and a modest amount of menthol-laden medicinal character, but again it hints at some caramel and coffee character from time to time that elevates the drinking experience to something much more intriguing. Released seasonally with a fluctuating alcohol level, the expression we reviewed (there’s no vintage/batch or other identifying information on my sample bottle) is bottled at 90 proof. B / $70

anchordistilling.com

Review: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye Whiskey (2015)

JB750_82Good old “yellow label” Jim Beam Rye was, for many drinkers, their first exposure to rye whiskey. What was it? Aside from something mentioned in a Don McLean song? Beam’s Rye was good enough — cheap, too — like a racier bourbon, but maybe not as sweet. Or you could go for Old Overholt if you wanted something fancier in your Sazerac.

Fast forward a decade and the world of rye has been completely upended. Tons of great ryes are available now, many costing up to 70 bucks a bottle or more. Who buys Yellow Label in the face of all kinds of rye goodness out there?

Beam got the hint, and Yellow Label (more recently repackaged with a sort of Beige Label) is going off the market. Reformulated and upgraded, Jim Beam Rye has been reimagined for the premium rye era, crafted from a “pre-Prohibition recipe” and bottled at 90 proof instead of 80. Mashbill composition is not available. The new, official name: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. Just don’t let the green label confuse you, as Jim Beam Choice is still hanging around out there. (To clarify, this is now Beam’s only mainstream rye.)

And we tried it:

Deep butterscotch notes hit the nose first, ringed with hints of dark chocolate. It’s common to describe the body rye as “spicy,” but that’s often misconstrued to mean spicy with hot red pepper. What spicy often means, as it does here on Beam, is more akin to baking spice: Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, all wrapped up with some smoky bacon and just a touch of licorice. It’s lightly sweet with a vanilla custard note to it, but not as powerful as the punch of bourbon. Initially quite light on the body, it grows on you with its gentle notes of apple pie, caramel, and that slightly savory, almost smoky lacing. The finish is modest, almost short, but engaging and more than pleasant as it fades away.

I was ready to dismiss this as a gimmicky attempt to grab some share in a rapidly growing market, but whaddaya know? The stuff’s legit.

90 proof.

A- / $23 / jimbeam.com

Review: Woodford Reserve Rye

woodford reserve ryeRye has long been the Next Big Thing in whiskeydom, and now it’s Woodford Reserve’s turn to get into the game. (When Maker’s Mark Rye eventually comes out, we can finally be assured that we’ve hit Peak Rye.)

Woodford Reserve Straight Rye uses a mash of 53% rye, 14% malted barley, and 33% corn, and, like most American rye, it is bottled without an age statement in a package quite similar to the iconic Woodford Bourbon bottle.

And here’s what it tastes like.

A glorious aroma of cinnamon toast hits the nose as you crack open the bottle. In the glass, it presents a rich, bourbon-like character on the nose, all vanilla and baking spice, with an undercurrent of caramel-driven wood notes. The body is where the rye starts to shine, offering chewy notes of gingerbread, cherries, and lots of clove-cinnamon apple pie spices. Wait for the finish to start to settle and back down and you’ll find a delightful chocolate malt character bubbling up — a perfect fade-out to lead you into that vanilla rush that starts things off on your next sip. All in all, it’s a really enchanting rye that’s hard to put down.

90.4 proof.

A / $38 / woodfordreserve.com

Review: Tap Rye Sherry Finished Canadian Rye Whisky 8 Years Old

TAP Sherry Bottle_LR

The Canadian Tap brand is back with a third expression of its finished rye whiskies: Tap Rye Sherry Finished.

As with the maple and port versions of Tap, “finishing” here means the addition of actual amontillado sherry to the blend of rye whiskies, not aging in ex-sherry barrels, the traditional definition of “finishing.” (That said, Tap Rye Port Finished does spend a little time in port barrels as well.)

What’s really different is that this is the first Tap with an actual age statement. Now bearing a monstrous 8 on the label, this expression is a legit eight years old, aged in white oak. While all the expressions come from a blend of barrels, the original Tap is nonetheless significantly younger.

So how’s the new one come across?

Well, Tap’s Sherry Finished Rye suffers from the same problems as its forebears: The whisky just never goes very far in the flavor department. The nose is sweet and slightly tinged with citrus, vanilla, and sweet maple wood notes. On the body, heavy sugar notes make for an indistinctly sweet whisky. The palate veers a bit toward maple syrup, with a nose of cotton candy and more vanilla. But, just like with the port and maple expressions, that’s about where it stops. Any character from the sherry is all but absent in this whisky. Tap Sherry Finished may as well be either of the whiskies that preceded it — the oddball finishing just doesn’t do enough to distinguish it.

83 proof.

B / $40 / tapwhisky.com

Review: Hillrock Solera Bourbon, Single Malt, Double Cask Rye, and White Rye

HED Family Slate

When famous distiller Dave Pickerell (ex of Maker’s Mark) opened Hillrock Estate Distillery in upstate New York, he had but one product, a high-rye Bourbon aged in the solera style and finished in oloroso sherry casks. Since then, Hillrock has added three more craft distilled products, all super-local and carefully handmade, to its stable: a single malt, a rye, and a white rye (made in limited quantities). We tasted all three new products and took a fresh look at the originl Bourbon to see if things were holding up.

Thoughts follow.

Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon – This is an update on Hillrock’s crazy solera-aged, oloroso sherry-finished Bourbon. Today I’m finding the sweetness almost overpowering up front: Bit-o-Honey, ripe banana, mandarin oranges, and chewy nougat comprise a complex nose. The body pumps that up further, with notes of pungent coconut, cherry juice, and orange oil. There’s so much going on in this whiskey — and so many flavors outside the norm of Bourbon, sometimes bordering on rum-like — that it can sometimes come across as overwhelming. It’s a mighty curious experience, though, and one that still bears repeating. 92.6 proof. A- / $80

Hillrock Single Malt Whiskey – A New York single malt whiskey, no age statement. Very malty/cereal-focused on the nose, with hints of smoke. There seems to be some fruit in there, but it’s buried under an avalanche of toasted Cheerios. The body offers racy and savory spices, pepper and some cloves, with a growing wood influence racing up behind it. The grain character remains the strongest, however, with lots of well-fired barley rounding out a very youthful but expressive spirit. 86 proof. B / $100

Hillrock Double Cask Rye – Made from estate-grown organic rye, which is aged in traditional oak casks and then finished in secondary casks composed of American oak with a #4 char and 24 months of seasoning. (No actual age statement, though.) The huge level of wood on the nose makes me wonder about the point of that secondary cask finishing. It’s all sawdust and furniture store, dulling the fruit and spice considerably. The palate opens things up a bit, with some butterscotch, caramel apple, and banana bread. It’s actually quite charming in the end, and after the wood wears away a bit (time in glass is good for this, as is water) a more typical essence of rye is revealed. You’ll need to fight for it, though. 90 proof. A- / $90

Hillrock George Washington Rye Whiskey (not pictured) – This is  a white rye, and it’s something pretty unique: “Pot distilled at Hillrock Estate following the General’s original recipe by Mount Vernon Master Distiller Dave Pickerell, each bottle contains an aliquot of whiskey made at the Washingtons’ reconstructed distillery at historic Mount Vernon. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this whiskey supports the educational programs at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” So, in other words, pot-distilled Hillrock rye mixed with a little bit of Mount Vernon rye, bottled unaged. It’s a classic white whiskey, with the focus squarely on the grain, lightly musty, with overtones of new leather, birch bark, tobacco leaf, and freshly turned earth. Sweetness is elusive on this one, but the punchy, roasted grain character — and the touch of history here — make it worth a brief encounter. 86 proof. B / $50 (375ml)

hillrockdistillery.com

Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog: Spirit of Mortimer” Rye Whiskey Single Barrel 2014

WhistlePig-Spirit-of-Mortimer

Clearly, Vermont-based WhistlePig has a stash of barrels of rye aging away in a warehouse, so each year the company can bottle a bit of it and see what happens, while the rest continues to mellow outtakes a little bit of its well-aged rye and bottles it just to see what’s going on. The rest lingers for another year.

This year WhistlePig’s special edition is a “nearly 14 year old” rye — 100% rye, as always — named in honor of the company’s deceased Kune Kune pig and mascot. “The Spirit of Mortimer” is marked not by a name on the label but by a large “M” and a pewter stopper that sits atop the bottle, a winged piglet that honors the deceased Mortimer. (To confuse matters further, the black label, similar in hue to 2012’s WhistlePig 111, merely indicates it’s “The Boss Hog,” akin to last year’s bottling.)

With that, we’re on to the tasting…

There’s ample wood and some campfire smoke on the nose of WhistlePig: Spirit of Mortimer, with hints of apple cider and cinnamon. The body is hefty and chewy, but with a fruitiness that shines through the haze of sawdust and lumber. Cinnamon and clove notes emerge on the racy finish, and while it’s all well-integrated with caramel characteristics at its core, it’s not altogether quite as intriguing as last year’s expression. Fine effort on the whole, however.

118 to 124 proof, depending on batch (our sample was not disclosed). 50 barrels bottled, less than 2,000 cases produced.

A- / $189 / whistlepigwhiskey.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock and Rye

Slow & Low Bottle Shot

Rock & Rye is coming back into vogue as a cocktail, and that’s probably just fine with the folks at Hochstadter’s, who are bottling a premade version of the cocktail called Slow & Low Rock and Rye. (The producer is the same company behind St. Germain, among other recent classics.)

Hochstadter’s takes rye whiskey and flavors it — strongly — with orange and honey (plus a bit of lemon, grapefruit, and horeshound), then bottles the concoction along with plenty of rock candy syrup, which knocks the sweetness into the stratosphere. We sampled a bottle to see what the fuss was all about a century or so ago…

The nose starts off surprisingly perfumed, then that orange peel character starts to push its way to the front. Sharp and sweet, it is punctuated by the earthier honey notes beneath the fruit. The palate is heavy, very heavy, on fruit. Tasted blind (literally blind) I doubt I would be able to peg this as based on whiskey at all, much less rye. Ignore the bottle and you could be drinking a special bottling of Grand Marnier, or perhaps a flavored rum. That’s a long way of saying that the characteristic sweet-and-spice of rye whiskey is largely absent here. What you do get are some vanilla overtones, but these aren’t distinctly whiskeylike. That honeyed orange element is just too powerful to mess with.

Mind you, that’s not a slight. Slow & Low is a flavored whiskey-slash-cocktail in a bottle, and as such the flavor component of that really should shine. That said, Slow & Low is quite the powerhouse, and it’s a bit overwhelming on its own — much more so than any Old Fashioned you’d encounter in a bar or mix up at home. Try it with plenty of ice and maybe a splash of water (or soda) to mellow things out a bit and make it . Also: Mind the extremely wide-mouth bottle. It pours fast!

84 proof.

B / $24 / drinkslowandlow.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Thistle Finch Small Batch White Rye Whiskey

Thistlefinch_039B

This white rye is made in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. What about that name? “Pennsylvania Dutch folk art frequently features a bird in it, that, in German, is called a “Distelfink” or Thistle Finch. The bird is a symbol of happiness and good fortune.”

Thistle Finch is made from a mash of 60% rye, 30% wheat, and 10% malted barley — 90% of which is locally sourced. The company notes specifically that it mills its grains to a flour-like consistency (unusual if you’ve ever seen or tasted a typical, chunky whiskey mash), which it claims offers better conversion from starch to sugar and, thus, a more flavorful product. Distilled in a hybrid copper pot still and bottled unaged, all bottles are individually labeled and numbered.

This is an interesting and unusual white whiskey, and there might be something to the distillery’s claims that it extracts more flavor out of a flour-based mash. The nose offers classic white whiskey flavors — brisk cereal, fresh-cut hay, and slight vegetal, bean sprout notes. The body offers all of these, but it’s layered with more complexity than expected. As the grain fades out, in come waves of citrus peel, nougat, lemongrass, and butterscotch — the latter building particularly on the finish. Yes, it’s still young whiskey, but there are complex flavors here that go well beyond the harsh and funky bruising that you tend to get with the typical new make spirit. I’d try it first in a white whiskey sour.

80 proof. Reviewed: Batch #06.

B+ / $32 / thistlefinch.com