Review: Sonoma County Distilling Sonoma Rye Whiskey and Cherrywood Rye Whiskey

SCD_CherrywoodRye_RTRemember 1512 Spirits? This tiny Rohnert Park, California operation has grown by leaps and bounds — and recently changed its name to Sonoma County Distilling Company. SCDC is pumping out products, mostly young whiskeys, including bourbon, wheat whiskey, and at least two ryes, both of which we’re reviewing today.

Let’s take a look at what this humble operation north of San Francisco is pumping out.

Sonoma County Distilling Co. Sonoma Rye Whiskey – 100% California rye, primarily unmalted rye with malted rye as a secondary grain. Double distilled and aged in new charred American oak, finished in used barrels. It’s young stuff (likely only a year or two old, though there’s no age statement), and on the nose it’s full of youthful roasted cereal notes, raw lumber, and some hospital notes. The body is more well-rounded, adding ample baking spice notes driven by the rye, some cherry fruit, and gentle vanilla. The finish is quite lumber-driven, with an echo of cereal. 108.8 proof. Reviewed: Batch #8. B- / $50

Sonoma County Distilling Co. Cherrywood Rye Whiskey – This is a more complicated product, made from (primarily) unmalted Canadian rye, cherrywood smoked malted barley, and unmalted Canadian wheat. It’s double distilled, then aged in new oak and finished in used barrels. And this one carries an age statement: A minimum of one year in oak. The results: Not at all what I was expecting, in a good way. The nose is youthful and lightly grainy, but more breakfast cereal than toasted bread, with hints of butterscotch. The body is where this whiskey really shines, offering gentle sweetness, with plenty of vanilla, cake frosting, and dried fruits. There is a slight smokiness on the back end, compounded with toasted nuts and — finally — some heavier grain elements. The finish isn’t a standout, but the palate offers plenty to enjoy. I’d use this freely as a cocktail base. 96 proof. Reviewed: Batch #1. B+ / $50

Tasting Lost Spirits Whiskey Experiments


Lost Spirits — the company that’s knee deep in ultra-accelerated spirits aging technology — has largely devoted its early experiments to one liquor category: Rum.

Why rum? It’s easier to age, with simpler ingredients and a more straightforward line from white spirit to old brown stuff.

Whiskey is a bit of a holy grail for Lost Spirits, as it’s a more lucrative market with larger appeal at the high end. (As you’ll recall, Lost Spirits’ reactor can age a product to the equivalent of 20 years of age — no more, and no less.) But it’s also been difficult to make, says CEO Bryan Davis, due to some incredibly geeky complications with the way certain bacteria interplay with the wood that makes up the barrel.

Well, Davis says that he’s on the path to figuring this out, and he sent me some whiskey samples from the reactor to see how things are progressing. On tap: Two bourbons (one 100 proof, one 118 proof) and a 100 proof rye. (To reiterate: These are not commercial products but just works-in-progress submitted for some early thoughts. All of them started off with new make spirit from a major Kentucky distillery, though Davis can’t say which.)

In short, Lost Spirits is well on the path, but there’s still work to be done. The overwhelming flavor of both of the bourbon experiments is smoke. Not barrel char, but campfire smoke, something that lands the experience closer to a peated Scotch than to any bourbon I’ve ever had. The body offers some floral elements and fruit underneath, with cherry notes enduring for a time — before the dense smoke elements take hold again. It still doesn’t quite compare to even very old bourbon — the near complete lack of sweetness is a key concern — indicating there’s still work to be done on the aging process.

Conversely, the rye is a much bigger success, showcasing classic rye baking spice notes, plenty of fruit, and a more restrained and gentle smoke character. Marshmallows, baked bread, and baked apples are blended together with just a bit of petrol and some of that forest fire smokiness to create a complex but balanced whole. Now 20 year old rye is hard to come by — I don’t know if I’ve ever had any at all — so comparisons with currently available products aren’t easy to make. But either way, this is a whiskey that I could drink right now, its various elements really firing together beautifully.

Review: Oppidan American Botanical Gin and Malted Rye Whiskey


Oppidan is a Chicago area-based microdistillery that is starting off with two products — a gin and an aged, malted rye. We tried them both. Thoughts follow.

Oppidan American Botanical Gin – A spin on London Dry, with grapefruit peel, hibiscus, cinnamon, elderflower, ginger, cardamom, and chamomile among the named botanicals. The nose is gentle and studded with mixed florals, moderate earth tones, and clear elderflower notes. On the palate, a wealth of flavors come forward — more floral notes, some chocolate, shaved licorice, some fennel, all with a seductive and lightly sweet finish. This is a feminine gin with a restrained and quiet body, a beautiful and delicate number that could pair well with just about anything. In a world where gin is an increasingly interesting category, it’s one of the best new bottlings you’ll find and I recommend it wholesale. 86 proof. A / $30

Oppidan Malted Rye Whiskey – A whiskey made from 100% malted rye, no age indicated. Clearly a young spirit, the whiskey is loaded with notes of grainy malt, smoke, and raw wood. The body offers some sweetness — vanilla, some baking spice, chewy wood, and beef jerky notes — but that youthful granary character is tough to shake. It’s hardly offensive, but you can find this same earthy and woody character in any number of young craft whiskeys on the market today. 92 proof. B / $45

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2015 Edition


As bourbon (and rye) mania continue to sweep the nation, this year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is setting up to be one of the hottest releases ever. (Surely you’re heard about Stagg? If not, read on for the spoiler…) As always, these are all highly capable, unique, and for the most part worthwhile whiskeys. But here’s the particulars on how each one breaks down for me this year.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – As it has for many years, this is 18 year old rye distilled way back in 1985 that has been sitting in a big metal tank since it hit its 18th birthday in 2003. Sazerac 18 changes a little each year, but not much. But now pay attention: This is the final release from the old tank. Next year’s release will feature whiskey distilled in 1998, and going forward, Sazerac 18 will be drawn from barrels filled 18 years prior. So — if you like what Sazzy 18 has been like in the past, get it now, as this is your last chance. In 2015, the nose offers exotic notes of brandied cherries, graham crackers, and whipped cream. This beautiful dessert character leads to ample wood on the initial rush of the palate — but this quickly segues to Christmas spices, more gingerbread, mulled wine, marzipan, and spiced, baked apples. The finish is long, soothing, and festive with its hefty spice character — perfect for holiday tippling. All in all, it’s a similar Sazerac 18 to the whiskey we’ve seen before, but like an old friend it’s one you still want to spend time with from time to time. 90 proof. A-

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – A 17 year old whiskey from the bottom three floors of Warehouses Q and I. Punchy with vanilla, caramel, and chocolate, this is a cocoa lover’s dream come true. A classic bourbon drinking at full maturity, it eventually reveals some allspice, barrel char, and a bit of menthol. This year’s whiskey is a fairly straightforward bourbon, one that even hints at its origins with some popcorn notes emerging on the finish — not something you often see in a whiskey of this age. Solid stuff on the whole, as it usually is. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – There’s quite a tale to go away with this one. Buffalo Trace says that it opened up 128 barrels of whiskey distilled in 2000 (making this 15 years old), but many of them only had 1 or 2 gallons of bourbon left in them. The shocking statistic: 84% of the original distillate evaporated! That’s quite an angel’s share… which means you are not going to find much Stagg on the market this year — one source I’ve seen estimates just 5000 bottles of this coveted whiskey will hit stores. 2015 is quite strong on the nose (this is 69% alcohol and dark as night, so prepare thy liver), but push through the alcohol to reveal intense vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves on the nose. The body is equally intense — lots of vanilla extract, cloves, and, surprisingly, licorice, plus a bit of barrel char on the back end. Give it water and it settles into a groove of burnt caramel and brown sugar with a little licorice kick. There’s not a lot of nuance this year — Stagg can often take on a dark coffee/chocolate tone — but it’s a very capable and highly enjoyable bourbon from start to finish. What else were you expecting? 138.2 proof. A-

William Larue Weller Bourbon – 12 year old W.L. Weller, from the second and sixth floors of warehouses I, K, and L. Appealing nose, and approachable even at this hefty proof (just 2% abv less than Stagg). It’s got a distinctly lighter style, with a nose of distinct butterscotch notes, fruit salad, and vanilla. On the palate, the butterscotch comes on strong, along with some marzipan and orange oil. Add water and the whiskey takes on an evergreen edge, though it’s still tempered with that almond paste/butterscotch sweetness. Kind of an odd combination of flavors — each enjoyable enough on its own, but all together a little bit scattered. 134.6 proof. B+

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – Six year old rye, as per the norm, from the fourth and seventh floors of warehouses I, K, and M. Slightly light in alcohol for Handy vs. previous years’ releases. Restrained on the nose, far more so than anything else in the collection. It’s just not altogether there, aside from some nutty and grainy overtones. On the palate, at full bottle strength, it features hot, toasty grain, some citrus/orange marmalade notes, and more than a bit of astringency. Water helps, bringing out more sweetness and some baking spice, but also tons of grain and some antiseptic notes that make the whole affair seem undercooked. There’s nothing wrong with young whiskey, but I question whether a rye that’s drinking so youthfully has a proper place in this collection. 126.9 proof. B-

$80 each /

Review: Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey

Pikesville-RyeHeaven Hill loves to make rye, and based on the enormous success of Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond, people like to drink it, too.

The company is expanding its rye portfolio with Pikesville, a 6 year old straight rye bottled at a blazing 110 proof — clearly inspired by the success of Rittenhouse at 100 proof. (Pikesville has been an existing, lower-end brand for Heaven Hill, but the company says this is a new and updated expression.)

There’s no mashbill information other than that it’s made from “at least 51% rye,” with corn and barley making up the remainder, as expected. The whiskey is produced at the Bernheim distillery.

So, on to the tasting.

It’s buttery and honey-sweet on the nose at first — then a bit of bubble gum aroma, which isn’t exactly what I’m looking for in a rye. On the palate, there’s plenty of heat as you’d expect, followed by significant notes of dried hay, butterscotch, and vanilla cookie overtones.

Fairly straightforward and uncomplicated, I didn’t find a whole lot of that traditional baking spice that you expect to find in rye. Rather, the overall impression is more akin to one you’d find in a lighter style of bourbon (albeit one bottled at a significantly higher proof than usual).

Bottom line: It’s fine, but if you’re looking for a Rittenhouse replacement, keep moving along.

110 proof.

B / $50 /

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.


Review: High West Bourye (2015) and American Prairie Whiskey (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  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

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

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.


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.