Review: Highspire Pure Rye Whiskey

Highspire_NB_With_Shadow100% heirloom rye. Double pot distilled. Aged for 130 days in used Paso Robles wine barrels. Chill filtered. Finished with oak staves. Made in Kentucky.

Winemaker Austin Hope has turned to whiskeymaking with this foray into distilling with Highspire, a very young rye (not legally able to be called one due to its odd production process) that certainly needs more barrel time under its legs before hitting your gullet — but which has some charms to show off.

The nose of this bright amber spirit starts with somewhat smoky wood notes and intense, roasted grain character. There’s lots of vegetation here on the palate, from dried rye to some wild-tasting weedy notes. The wine makes a bit of an appearance later in the game, with some gentle raisin notes adding nuance along some vanilla that finally makes an appearance. The finish features ample grain, well-roasted and leading to some chocolate and coffee character. Give it time, and these disparate notes eventually start to gel into a more cohesive whole.

In the end, this is extremely young whiskey but it isn’t without some charms. Fans of nicely-aged rye won’t find this compelling, but it does present an interesting profile in a crowded field of often dull craft spirits.

80 proof.

B / $35 / highspirewhiskey.com

Review: High West Bourye (2015) and American Prairie Whiskey (2015)

bourye_bottle_2015

Utah-based High West is a fun distillery to try to keep up with. Blink and they’ve got a new product. Blink again and it’s gone, replaced with something else.

It’s been a year since we last visited with High West and already things are evolving. Bourye — the bourbon and rye blend — was off the market and now is back, with an older collection of whiskeys comprising it. American Prairie Reserve — a blend of bourbons — is gone, replaced by American Prairie, which has some younger MGP bourbon in it.

Today we look at both of these newer releases. Thoughts follow.

High West Whiskey Bourye (2015) – Sourced from multiple distilleries, all whiskeys are at least 9 years old. These include a 9 year old bourbon (21% rye, 4% barley) from Indiana; a 10 year old rye (5% barley) from MGP; a 16 year old rye (5% barley) from MGP; and another 16 year old rye (10% corn, 10% barley) from Barton Distillery. Proportions are not disclosed. It’s got a gorgeous nose right out of the gate as the bottle is opened — almost like a heavily spiced apple pie is baking in the next room. Nosing the glass brings out notes of scorched caramel, cloves, and some toasted cereal — though alcohol is a bit heavy on the nostrils. The body is gorgeous and so easy to fall in love with. Nice notes of cinnamon toast, mixed dried fruits, some orange peel, and lots of added baking spice (especially cloves) come rushing at you all at once. The balance between spice and sweetness is just perfect here, with just a touch of wood on the back end to provide a nod at the not unsubstantial age this whiskey has seen. While hot on the nose, the body drinks just perfectly — silky with just the right amount of power to back things up. Reviewed: Batch 15B04. 92 proof. A / $63

High West Whiskey American Prairie (2015) – A blend of bourbons: 2 year old MGP (20% rye, 5% barley), 6 year old Kentucky mystery bourbon, and 13 year old Kentucky mystery bourbon. Again, the proportions are not disclosed. Significant barrel char, lumberyard, and granary notes on the nose. Butterscotch builds on the body, with some astringency quickly taking over. The finish is rustic and pushy, echoing a strong cereal (though not quite corny) character. That 2 year old bourbon makes an impact here, one which the older stock can’t quite undo. Tough to follow up the amazing Bourye with this one. Reviewed: Batch 9. 92 proof. B / $33

highwest.com

Review: Four Kings Rye 2015 Craft Collaboration

four kings rye

Last year, four craft distillers got together and made a collaborative bourbon by vatting together their own craft spirits into one mega-craft bourbon called Four Kings. (Don’t go searching for a review, we didn’t sample it.) This year, the quartet is back at it but is producing a rye instead.

The four distilleries include Corsair Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan, and Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire, Iowa. Each contributed 30 gallons of rye whiskey into the final blend of Four Kings Rye.

There’s not a lot of information about what goes into each of the four ryes, but that probably wouldn’t be of much use, anyway. What we have here seems to be a craft spirit that is fully in keeping with the exuberant style of American craft whiskeys — at least at first, anyway.

On the nose, intense cereal notes start things off, then sharp citrus, menthol, and some hospital notes. The palate offers a lot more nuance once you push past that grainy introduction, with baking spices, gingerbread, baked apples, and well-integrated wood tannins. It’s a much more elevated experience than the brash and youthful nose would indicate, with a surprising depth of flavor to offer. Give it a try.

B / $50 / no formal website

Review: Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky

AlbertaRye_Bottle_HIRESAlberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is so complicated it is typically accompanied by a flowchart explaining the convoluted method by which it is made. I’m going to try to digest this oddball Canadian rye for you… but don’t feel bad if you get lost. Really it’s all about what’s in the glass in the end.

Alberta Dark Batch starts with two ryes. One is from a pot still, aged six years in new #4 char American oak barrels. One is from a column still, aged 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels.

These two ryes are blended 50-50. This rye blend now becomes 91% of what goes into the Dark Batch bottle. The other 9%? 8% is bourbon (provenance unknown which is Old Grand Dad). 1% is sherry (provenance also unknown). Yes, it’s really 1% sherry. No, not 1% whiskey finished in a sherry barrel. Yes, real sherry. Yes, like the wine. I know.

My first encounter with Dark Batch at a recent whiskey show wasn’t a hit, but I don’t think I was prepared for the assault on the senses that Dark Batch makes, particularly when compared to some more delicate and gentle alternatives. Now, Dark Batch has grown on me at least a bit — though it’s still certainly not my favorite whisky.

Let’s start with the name. Dark Batch is right: This whisky pours a dark tea color, almost a mahogany depending on the light. On the nose, it’s exotic and complex, with notes of coffee, tree bark, evergreen needles, burnt caramel, and blackened toast. All dark, dense, earthy overtones — made even pushier thanks to its somewhat higher 90 proof.

On the palate, even more oddities are in store for you, starting with distinct sherry notes — surprising, considering it’s just the 1 percent. I guess that was enough. There’s more coffee character, plus some red raspberry fruit — particularly evident as the finish approaches, taking the whiskey into sweeter and sweeter territory. This lingers for a considerable amount of time, growing in pungency to the point where it evokes notes of prune juice. As it fades, it coats the palate in an almost medicinal way — which isn’t such a great thing as you finish your glass, but hey, at least I haven’t had to cough all evening.

90 proof.

B- / $30 / albertarye.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: WhistlePig “Old World” Rye Whiskey 12 Years Old 2015

whistlepig old world

Every year WhistlePig — the acclaimed 100% rye whiskey — puts out a special edition. For the last three of those years the whiskey has been a spin on the original WhistlePig, generally getting older every year and/or bottled from a single barrel. For 2015, WhistlePig has something different in store: A whiskey that’s been finished in a variety of wine barrels.

WhistlePig has been experimenting with a variety of finishing barrels for its rye for a few months; I’ve never tasted any of them but they are still available in very limited release. Old World (aka Old World Marriage) marks the conclusion of those experiments — and unlike the finishing barrel releases it is a permanent addition to the WhistlePig lineup. The finished release is a blend of finished whiskeys: 63% from Madeira finished barrels, 30% Sauternes finished, and 7% Port finished. The whiskies inside are not 100% rye but rather 95% rye and 5% malted barley. (These spirits are also sourced from MGP in Indiana, not from Canada, which is where the prior WhistlePig bottlings are produced.) There’s no information available on the length of the finishing — but the whiskey inside is 12 years old. Of special note: While the individual Old World finished whiskeys were bottled at 90 proof, this one hits the bottle at a slightly lower 86 proof.

The experience is considerably different from the standard WhistlePig bottling. There’s tons of astringency and heat on the nose here — that’s nothing new — but give all that a little time to blow off before diving in. What emerges are distinctly winey aromas coming directly from those barrel finishes. No surprise that the Madeira leads the way, offering those oxidized wine notes plus dark chocolate, salted caramel, and some pungent rhubarb character. On the palate, it’s easily drinkable without water, the whiskey offers a complex array of flavors that starts off with golden syrup and bright citrus (the Sauternes influence, perhaps), then fades toward roasted grains, chocolate (here comes the Port…), and the winey notes that the Madeira drives.

WhistlePig is a textbook rye, all grain, lumber, and baking spices, but this expression takes the spirit in a whole new direction. Definitely worth seeking out, even if you’re just curious from a novelty factor perspective.

A- / $130 / whistlepigwhiskey.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye

RR_Single Barrel Rye_Bottle Shot

Wild Turkey is expanding the Russell’s Reserve line this year with a Single Barrel Rye expression. There’s already a Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Rye (much more expensive these days than the $25 it cost in 2007), but as with the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, this is a higher-end expression that plays some of its details close to the vest. There’s no age statement and no mashbill information, but it’s drawn from a single barrel and bottled at a higher proof.

This rye features a quite fruity nose, offering notes of banana, almonds, mint, and vanilla. Racy and heady from the hefty alcohol level, it doesn’t let up at all. On the palate the flavor profile is also quite fruity, mixing some apple and rhubarb in with notes of banana cream and vanilla custard. The spirit comes across as surprisingly young, with some grain notes making it through to the finish, but I also get touches of coconut and chocolate late in the game as well, keeping things fairly sweet. It isn’t a particularly peppery rye, but it does have some astringency to it — pronounced on the nose but just as detectable on the finish — that might be mistaken for some kind of “spice” character.

All told this is a credible rye, but as with Crown Royal’s latest, the fruit is pushed too far. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye has a better balance to it, but frankly I think the standard Russell’s Reserve Rye is more representative of what a solid rye should taste like.

104 proof. Available September 2015.

B+ / $60 / wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

crown royal rye

A Crown Royal Rye? Wait, isn’t all Canadian whisky “rye”? Hang on a sec.

There’s a lot of confusion about rye and Canadian whisky, and rightly so: By law in Canada, a whisky only has to have some rye in it to be called a rye, part of an outgrowth of hundreds of years of shorthand and tradition there. Today, most Canadian whiskies have quite a small amount of rye in the mash — like Bourbon, they tend to mostly be made from corn — yet the myth that Canadian whisky is largely rye remains.

Well, Crown Royal is going to confuse things even further with the release of Northern Harvest Rye, its first-ever legitimate rye in 75 years of operation. The mash for this whisky is a whopping 90% rye. By Canadian law, the other 10% is poutine. (Just kidding! Crown doesn’t specify.)

On first nosing, I thought perhaps Crown mistakenly filled this with its Regal Apple flavored whisky. Very strong apple notes on the nose are backed by a little caramel, giving it a distinct apple pie character. The body is again distinctly apple-fueled, but here more of the spice shows itself. Cloves and allspice are strongest, with some molasses-like sweetness sugaring things up a bit. The finish is slightly drying, and a bit of roasted grain character comes to the fore before fading out.

This is a truly strange whisky, unlike any other rye I’ve encountered in recent memory. The intense fruit character isn’t unpleasant, but it’s not what I’m looking for a quality rye. This whisky will likely resonate with many fans — but may well turn off just as many drinkers.

90 proof.

B / $30 / crownroyal.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2015

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This year marked my sixth consecutive in attendance at Whiskies of the World, a fantastic event that’s typically held on the San Francisco Belle paddleboat, docked in San Francisco Bay. I asked organizer Douglas Stone why it seemed so empty this year, and he told me it was an optical illusion: He pushed the distilleries’ tables closer to the wall, making much more room for attendees. Ultimately, Stone sold more tickets this year but created a show that felt much less overwhelmingly crowded. Good move!

As always, there were lots of old favorites alongside new bottlings to try at this event — and I tried to seek out some as many lesser-known brands as I could this go-round. The hands-down favorite? Speyburn’s very limited edition Clan Cask, a 37 year old single malt that was just sitting there on the table unnoticed — not even part of the VIP hour. I’m tempted to buy a bottle, even though it’s $400 at retail. Whiskey festival-goers: Pay attention to what’s out there!

Thoughts on everything sampled follow.

Scotch

Arran 14 Years Old / A- / powerful, long finish; punchy spice lasts
Arran Port Cask Finish / B / a but musty today; not seeing the port character
Auchentoshan 18 Years Old / B+ / some smoky lumberyard notes; dried fruit on the finish
BenRiach Sauternes Finish 16 Years Old / A- / light as a feather; gentle apple and honey notes
BenRiach Solstice 17 Years Old / A- / modest peat notes, some citrus; a combo that works well
Benromach 10 Years Old / B+ / easy peat notes, crosote, lingers without being too pushy
Cutty Sark Prohibition / B- / too pushy in the wood department
Duncan Taylor Black Bull 21 Years Old / A- / surprisingly good, malty notes and cocoa; very gentle and lovely
Duncan Taylor Glen Grant 1995 18 Years Old Single Cask / A- / pretty, floral, with sweet caramel notes
Duncan Taylor Glentauchers 2008 6 Years Old Sherry Single Cask / B / very young and very hot; grain with a citrus explosion
Exclusive Malts Blended Whisky 1991 21 Years Old / A- / candy apple, lots of malt, chewy nougat
Exclusive Malts Bowmore 2002 12 Years Old / A- / gentle and modestly peated; lingering finish
Haig Club / B+ / citrus and grain in nice balance; I’m still a modest fan
Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 10 Years Old / B / very young, tough grain notes
Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach 25 Years Old / A / a highlight of the night; classic structure both gentle and rich with well-rounded sweetness and spice
Gordon & MacPhail Spey Malt Macallan 19 Years Old / B / distilled in 1994; pushy and developing a bitter edge
Johnnie Walker Blue Label / A- / lush, drinking quite easily
Laphroaig 18 Years Old / A- / gentle smoke with a menthol kick
Macallan 12 Years Old / B / super woody and tannic; less enjoyable than I remembered
Macallan Fine Oak 15 Years Old / A- / silkier, with more pronounced sherry notes
Macallan Rare Cask / A- / rich, nougat notes, big sherry finish – I’m still a fan
Mortlach Rare Old / A- / chewy, some smoke, lush and rounded”
Muirheads 1992 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Bourbon Cask / B+ / classic structure, toasted, easy grains
Muirheads 1993 Silver Seal 20 Years Old Sherry Cask / A- / gentle, then a flood of citrus
Speyburn 25 Years Old / A- / racy, lots of wood and sherry, spice; a bit of barnyard
Speyburn Clan Cask 37 Years Old / A+ / rich, with notes of coffee, dark chocolate; lush, malty, and epic in its length; I couldn’t get enough of this one… alas, it’s extremely limited

American Whiskey

Bird Dog Blackberry Bourbon / C- / sugar and fruit syrup
Bird Dog Chocolate Bourbon / B / they ain’t lyin’
Black Saddle 12 Years Old Bourbon / A- / lumber and campfire notes; licorice and root beer
Buck Bourbon / A- / an 8 year old bottling; I wouldn’t have expected so much fruit (cherry), but the grainy edge brings it back to bourbon country
Defiant American Single Malt / C- / sweaty, wet mule notes; very young and weedy
George Dickel Barrel Select / B / almond notes, very nutty and chewy
Healthy Spirits Four Roses Single Barrel / A- / an SF retailer’s single-barrel OBSF from Four Roses, 11 years 5 months old; fruity with a spice kick and red pepper finish
Healthy Spirits Smooth Ambler 8 Years Old Single Barrel Rye / A- / wow! fruit tea, baking spice, and ginger all wrapped up in a whiskey
Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Bourbon / B- / “inspired by the quality of AH Hirsch,” hmmm… this bourbon has nothing to do with the classic Hirsch; it’s big and wheaty, with lengthy grain notes
I.W. Harper 15 Years Old Bourbon / A- / deep, lengthy vanilla notes
Koval Bourbon / C- / sweaty with raw grain notes
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 / A- / punch, fresh, lush vanilla
Old Forester Signature / A- / chewy with a touch of granary notes; very big finish
Wathen’s Single Barrel / B+ / I’d only ever had this one in Kentucky; grainier than I remember, with some spice to it
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir Finish / A / still loving this; big fruit, Cocoa Pebbles, and a touch of corn
Woodford Reserve Rye / A- / pretty and lovely barley notes with a long finish

World Whiskeys

Alberta Dark Batch Rye / C / exotic nose, but funky as hell on the body with big oak and grain galore; I’m always wary of spirits like this marketed as a “mixologist whiskey”; full review is in the works… we’ll see if this grade stands
Connemara Peated Single Malt 12 Years Old / A- / so gentle; light peat atop honey and heather
Crown Royal XR LaSalle / B+ / lots of apple notes; sweet, almost syrupy
Hakushu 18 Years Old / A- / malty, big finish
Kavalan Vinho Barrique Single Malt Whisky / B+ / fiery, some sour fruit
Kavalan King Car / B+ / nice sherry notes, a bit salty
Nikka Whisky Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 Years Old / A- / well rounded, nice caramel notes
Nikka Whiksy Taktesuru Pure Malt 17 Years Old / B+ / surprisingly heavy cereal character
Yamazaki 18 Years Old / A / spry nose; glorious on the body

Review: Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye, 2 Year Old Blended, and 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskeys

LG_100ProofThe mad microdistillers at Craft Distillers keep rolling with the Low Gap line. These whiskeys began as white dog releases in 2011, and the company has been putting out progressively older and more interesting expressions in the years since. Today we got to sample a trio of two year old whiskeys, including a rye, a blend, and an overproof (wheat) rarity. As with all of the Low Gap line (six bottlings are currently on the market), all of these spirits are made in Craft’s 16 hectoliter cognac still, fermented on site from scratch, and brought to proof using filtered rainwater(!).

Thoughts follow.

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Rye Whiskey – Malted rye with some corn and barley, aged in new and used bourbon and cognac barrels. The nose is quite grainy, but mellowing out as it settles down, with some smoky notes along with some interesting almond and graham cracker characteristics. The body is initially sweet with just a touch of cognac-driven raisin character that adds a lot more nuance than you might expect. The finish gets a bit hoary though, a clear showcase of this whiskey’s youth, with dried herbs and some baking spice finishing things off. 88.2 proof. B / $65 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old Blended Whiskey – Malted corn and barley, aged in used Van Winkle bourbon barrels and new Missouri oak bourbon barrels. The nose exudes some notes of classic — but very young — bourbon. Corny and woody, but also racy with spices and sharp vanilla extract. The body is somewhat brash and still showing itself as a young gun, but one with lots of charm. Think caramel corn, vanilla cream soda, and some maple syrup. Still plenty of lumberyard notes here, but there’s enough character to get me excited, not just for today, but to see where this goes in the next couple of years. 92 proof. A- / $65  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Craft Distillers Low Gap 2 Year Old 100 Proof Whiskey – This is Low Gap’s Bavarian wheat whiskey, aged two-plus years, bottled from a selection of just three barrels (comprising new and used oak) at 100 proof, of course. This whiskey starts off demure and restrained, but give it a little time and a wealth of fruit notes emerge on the nose: Apples and orange flowers, some banana, backed up with a bit of cereal. On the palate some coconut notes mingle with cinnamon, cloves, nougat, and milk chocolate. Wood makes a belated appearance on the back end, but in a gentle and approving way. The evolution on the palate is both fun and intriguing as an exploration. Arguably the best Low Gap expression Craft Distillers has put out to date. A / $75

craftdistillers.com

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