Review: New England Distilling Gunpowder Rye

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Based in Portland, Maine, craft distillery New England Distilling is likely the easternmost distilling operation in the United States (correct me if I’m wrong). It’s a producer of several spirits, including this increasingly popular and available rye.

We’ve got more NED reviews in the works, but meanwhile take a gander at Gunpowder, reportedly “inspired by” a 150 year old “Maryland style” family recipe. Made only from local grains — just rye and 2-row barley (70% rye, 30% barley), no corn — and spending less than two years in American oak barrels, it’s a young craft rye like few others we’ve encountered.

Aptly named, Gunpowder Rye is very pungent on the nose. Loaded with notes of menthol, fresh cut grains, black and red pepper, and — dare I say — the racy essence of gunpowder, this isn’t a shy spirit. The body is brash and loaded with power. “Smooth” is a word that no one will use to describe this rye, its raw and biting character worn right on its sleeve. Gut-punching pepper, roasted grains, and flamed orange peel come across before a fiery finish grips your throat and doesn’t let go. Mercifully, at the very end, a wash of brown sugar sweetness comes across, letting you off the hook a little.

Rye often gets stereotyped as a “spicy” whiskey when in reality many ryes can be quite fruity and easygoing. This is one whiskey that lives up to the stereotype completely.

87 proof. Reviewed: Batch #4.

B+ / $39 / newenglanddistilling.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: High West A Midwinter Nights Dram and The Barreled Boulevardier

We’re finally getting around to reviewing High West’s latest products, a new rye and a second barrel-aged-and-bottled cocktail. These have both been around for a few months, so please forgive our tardiness!

High West Distillery and SaloonHigh West A Midwinter Nights Dram – Never mind the typo (it should be “Night’s,” no?) and never mind that I’m reviewing a clearly holiday-themed spirit in mid-June. Wow, this rye whiskey finished in French oak and ex-Port barrels is cherries cherries cherries from start to finish. The nose features macerated cherry fruit, steeped in vanilla and a touch of dusty wood. On the tongue, a powerful brandied cherry character emerges, with notes of ginger, vanilla cream, rhubarb, and fruitcake. OK, maybe I’m imagining the fruitcake, but the festive name of this spirit couldn’t be more appropriate. Initially a bit off-putting with its incredible fruitiness, the whiskey eventually settles down into something that’s quite enjoyable and wholly unique. Reviewed: “Act 1, Scene 1313″ of this “limited engagement.” 98.6 proof. A- / $80

High West Distillery and SaloonHigh West The Barreled Boulevardier – A Boulevardier cocktail is composed of 1/3 bourbon, 1/3 sweet vermouth, and 1/3 Campari. Here, High West uses Vya vermouth and Gran Classico in lieu of Campari, then ages the combination in ex Bourbon barrels. Here, some ice helps to bring this to proper cocktail temperatures and to add a little meltwater to the mix. The result is an interesting mix of cocoa powder, red cherries, honey syrup, and a bitter, spicy kick on the finish. It’s a strong drink, one which benefits from slow sips and lots of reflection, as the bitter aftertaste it leads can be hard to shake. For a segment of the populace in love with the Negroni, this will probably have them endlessly abuzz. 72 proof. B / $55

highwest.com

Review: Jack Daniel’s Rested Rye

Jack Daniel's Rested Rye - bottle shot

Hey, remember a couple of years ago when Jack Daniel’s decided it was going to make a rye whiskey? Give Jack credit: Rather than simply buy someone else’s rye and put their label on it, Jack decided to make its rye itself, legit.

The catch: Making whiskey takes time, so in 2012, when the rye trend was hitting its stride, all JD had was unaged whiskey on its hands, which it sold. For $50 a bottle.

Fast forward to today, roughly a year and a half later, and Jack… still doesn’t have a finished product. What it does have is a very young rye whiskey, which they’re calling “Rested Rye.” (This is the same mashbill of 70% rye, 18% corn, 12% malted barley.)

That’s probably a good enough descriptor of a noble whiskey that, like the Unaged Rye, no one is going to buy. Here’s why.

The nose offers wet, over-ripe, nearly rotten banana, plus some coconut husk notes. There’s an undercurrent of cereal notes, but little wood as of yet. The body is quite sweet — those bananas don’t pull any punches — with a lengthy finish that wanders into orange juice, clover honey, and cream of wheat territory. Unsatisfying and flabby, I get little spice, no pepper, nothing really approaching classic rye characteristics at all, or the promise of them to come. Believe it or not, I’d much rather drink the white dog than this whiskey as it stands today.

Of course all of that really means very little. This is a work in progress, and as any amateur taster of white dogs can tell you, the white spirit rarely has much resemblance to the finished product, and this “rested” version probably won’t have much in common with the final release either. We’ll see, I suppose, either way, come 2018 or so.

80 proof. Available in limited quantities.

C / $50 / jackdaniels.com

Review: Hudson Whiskey Maple Cask Rye

hudson maple cask rye

Aka Hudson Maple Rye, this limited edition bottling is the latest from New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits, one of the original and most iconic craft distillers in the U.S.

Hudson Maple Cask Rye is born from a deal the company has with a nearby maple syrup maker: They send old bourbon barrels to the syrup guys, who age syrup in them. Hudson then takes the old syrup-infused barrels back, and they then put new-make rye (a 100% rye mash) in them, for “a little under four years.” The result is this whiskey, as true a “maple aged” spirit as you’re going to find, aged in maple syrup barrels rather than simply spiked with syrup or, bleccch, artificial flavors.

Hudson’s Maple Rye offers a lush combination of flavors you won’t readily find in other spirits. The nose is all rye: The grain notes are toasty and very present, crisp and chewy with dense cereal notes. On the body, things open up: Sweet and spice and everything rye, with those grainy characters fading into sultry maple tones. This is far from overdone, a frequent problem with other “maple” spirits, but is rather a subtle and natural companion to the chewy savoriness that the rye lends to this whiskey. Secondary notes include raisins, plum pudding, orange peel, nutmeg, and hints of the underlying oak used for the barrels. The maple is there — always there — but it’s kept in check, understated and balanced.

Altogether this is fun stuff, my sole complaint being that the underlying spirit is just too young (a frequent issue I have with Hudson’s whiskeys). With another couple of years in these barrels, I wager this stuff would really have started to sing.

92 proof.

B+ / $40 (375ml) / hudsonwhiskey.com

Review: Collingwood 21 Year Old Rye Canadian Whisky

Collingwood Rye 21 Year Old high res

Who, who, whoooo is putting out 21 year old rye? At a price of 70 bucks (or less)? Collingwood, that’s who.

Collingwood is best known for bottling its spirits in what look like oversized perfume bottles, but it should be known for the quality of the spirits inside. Standard Collingwood, a young Canadian blend, offers a huge amount of flavor for a whisky that’s just three years or so old. At 27 bucks it’s a steal.

Now comes Collingwood 21, a 100% malted rye with a full 21 years of age on it, aged primarily in new oak barrels and finished in toasted maplewood barrels. There’s plenty going on here. The nose offers rich wood character, butterscotch, and hints of maple syrup. It’s quite enticing and invites you into sipping away, revealing more syrup and butterscotch notes, plus intriguing notes of orange peel, evergreen, and some light lumberyard. The finish is woody but far from overdone, an engaging rush that brings along hints of that rye spiciness, something akin to a clove-spiked orange. Dangerously drinkable.

This is a one-time-only limited release. Grab it while you can. 

80 proof.

A / $70 / collingwoodwhisky.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: WhistlePig “The Boss Hog” Rye Whiskey Single Barrel 12 Years Old 2013

whistlepig the boss hog rye

WhistlePig is widely regarded (by myself included) as one of the best ryes on the market, a straight, 100% rye bottled at 100 proof and a full 10 years old. Last year’s TripleOne brought the age up to 11 years and proof to 111 proof. Now comes The Boss Hog, a 12 year old rye bottled at cask strength — over 130 proof. Whoa.

24 casks are being bottled (each bottle is from a single barrel, they aren’t being vatted), so quantities will be definitively limited (1000 cases, give or take), and the product will vary from one bottle to the next.

The Boss Hog (technically “series 1,” indicating this may become an annual thing) is presumably, like TripleOne, the WhistlePig base stock with a couple of extra years on it and less water in the bottle. What’s remarkable is what those couple of tweaks can do to this already classy and refined spirit.

To start with, the nose is a monster: Richly sweet, without too much wood on it (surprisingly). Aromatics include fresh hay, cinnamon toast, and quite a bit of alcoholic heat. The body is amazingly not nearly as heated as you’d expect, despite having an alcohol level that puts this year’s George T. Stagg to shame. While it’s certainly racy, it’s easily drinkable without water, and you’ll also find flavor to spare. There’s an instant rush of Bit-O-Honey, with deft touches of cinnamon and cloves. The body grows, offering sultry vanilla notes while building up the wood components, until the finish hits, adding some red pepper, dark chocolate, and a rush of heat at the back of the throat. The end result of all of this is quite enchanting, a cask strength, extra-old rye which is already unheard of, but is also almost completely balanced from start to finish.

~134 proof (proof will vary by bottle). Sample barrel # unknown.

A / $150 / whistlepigwhiskey.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Corsair Ryemageddon and Quinoa Whiskey

corsair quinoa_whiskey

Corsair is probably the country’s most curious and experimental craft distillery (it makes one whiskey that has elderflowers in it), and the two whiskeys reviewed below should be proof enough of its oddball inspirations. Both of these whiskeys are part of Corsair’s standard releases, though that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find.

Corsair Ryemageddon –  An aged version (no statement) of Corsair’s Wry Moon white whiskey, made from malted rye and chocolate rye. This is a fun and — suffice it to say — wholly unique product on the market. The nose is heavy with grain, savory yet spicy and clearly on the hot side. The body starts things off with a traditional, relatively young grain profile, and then the jams get kicked out. A racy sweetness comes on strong — nougat and marshmallows, with a little punch of candied grapefruit — and then it starts to mellow. Here the rye starts to really show its face, with a finish that is long and spicy, full of red and black pepper, with a touch of nutmeg and cloves. This is youthful and brash stuff, yet full of life and punchy with flavor. Worth exploring. 92 proof. B+ / $52

Corsair Quinoa Whiskey – Made with red and white quinoa — the It Grain of the healthy eating craze today. I sampled this before almost in passing and found it somewhat off-putting. Today I’m digging the Quinoa Whiskey quite a bit more. I get immediate chocolate on the nose, with modest spice and indistinct grainary notes. The body is amped up with a mild sweetness, more of that milk chocolate character, and a finish that takes things not so much into young grain notes but rather into an earthy, mushroomy quality that is unique in the whiskey world. This is intense and exotic stuff, definitely worth checking out… but seriously, Corsair, where’s the clever name? Quiskey, anyone? 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch #5, bottle #109/160. A- / $56

corsairartisan.com / [BUY THEM NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Blue Flame Spirits Washington Rye and Wheat Whiskeys

blue flame washington rye

Blue Flame is a craft distillery based in Prosser, Washington. The company focuses on hyper-local distilling: Both of these products are made from ingredients sourced from within 45 miles of the distillery, including grain from the distillery’s own farm and the barrels (made from local wood and custom designed by distillery owner Brian Morton) in which they’re aged. We’ll talk more about what’s in the bottle in the two reviews below. Both spirits are 80 proof, no age statements offered.

Blue Flame Spirits Washington Wheat Whiskey – 100% local wheat — a rare mashbill in today’s world. Initially young and brash, this youthful endeavor starts off without revealing many of its charms. Heavy granary notes start the show, clean but full of cereal character. Over time, the whiskey builds to offer restrained notes of banana, butterscotch, and caramel. Light toasted almond notes atop the cereal-driven body can be found on the finish. A curiosity. B- / $36

Blue Flame Spirits Washington Rye Whiskey – 100% local rye (rare, but not quite as rare as the 100% wheat). This rye is sweeter than the wheat, with a more interesting collection of flavors to explore on the whole. As with the wheat, the rye starts with young cereal notes, but here they quickly build and evolve into a new direction. A light smokiness on the nose offers a touch of nuance for the nostrils. The body features toasted marshmallow, hazelnut, and some light chocolate, all atop a more racy grain underpinning. The finish brings all of this together into a rough sort of dessert with a surprisingly enjoyable and easy-drinking balance. B+ / $33

blueflamespirits.com

Review: Wild Turkey Forgiven Whiskey

wild turkey forgivenIs it possible that a distillery like Wild Turkey made a new whiskey by mistake… and that it turned out so well they decided to commercialize it? Well, I don’t want to get in the way of a self-described “wild tale” or this new whiskey, the first-ever widely produced whiskey that’s a blend of bourbon and rye.

Made from 78 percent 6-year-old bourbon and 22 percent 4-year-old rye, Forgiven is immediately a curiosity, though well in line with the Wild Turkey repertoire. The nose is well installed in bourbonland: Big, lumberyard sawdust notes which immediately come across as something much older than a mere 6 years of age. Mild vanilla notes come across alongside them, but the dominant aroma is purely, simply wood.

On the body there’s fortunately more to discover. Creamy marshmallow backed up with milk chocolate, some apple, and a touch of spice are well evident on the palate. Of course, there’s plenty of wood to go along with it, and here it’s almost overpowering. As for that rye, it’s not much more evident than in a high-rye bourbon. There is a slight kick on the back end as a little red pepper shows itself, but otherwise, you’d be fully forgiven (get it?) for thinking this was just a big, woody bourbon.

Forgiven is fine for a sipping whiskey, but I’m unconvinced that it adds anything new to the Wild Turkey pantheon. I’m happy to drink it — it’s completely harmless — but it just doesn’t have a lot of nuance that you’ll find either in straight bourbon or standard rye.

Was this truly an accidental discovery? It seems absurd to suggest that no one has blended two whiskeys together in the past — Wild Turkey makes plenty of both of these spirits — but having experienced the final product of putting them together, it’s easy to see why a mixture like this has never been commercialized until now. There just wasn’t any point.

91 proof.

B / $50 / wildturkeybourbon.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2013 Edition

Antique Collection buffalo trace 2013

It’s always a glorious day when Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection annual samples arrive, letting us stick our noses and tongues in these classics of the American whiskey world. 2013 offers the quintet at ages of up to 19 years old. Here’s how the five whiskeys of the 2013 Collection stack up. (Hint: It’s one of the strongest showings for the Antique Collection in years.)

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old – Beautiful nose. Lovely rye spice meets caramel and spice aromas. The body has an easy sweetness to it, with gentle grain meeting burnt sugar, vanilla caramels, and light applesauce notes. Relatively simple, but wait for the dark molasses to come along in the finish as you let this rumble around in the glass for a while. This is a barrel (er, barrels) picked at just the right time — I don’t get the overly tannic, drying, and dusty character than 2012’s version. As it often is in the annals of the Antique Collection (because it’s essentially the same from year to year), this one’s just about perfect. 90 proof. A

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Bourbon – Surprise, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old is this year actually 19 years old. They didn’t bother changing the bottle, though. This is always a fun, go-to bourbon, and this year it’s no exception. A bigger whiskey, it’s got ample leather and wood on the nose and the initial attack of the body, with a kind of plum/prune/raisin underpinning that arrives quickly. The sweeter, more dessert-like elements come out more clearly as the finish fades, leaving the drinker with a surprisingly complex overall experience. 90 proof. A-

George T. Stagg Bourbon – This year’s Stagg was aged on lower floors of the Buffalo Trace warehouses, and the proof comes in at 128.2 proof, one of the lowest (if not the lowest) I’ve seen since starting this website. (Higher warehouse locations are hotter, which causes more water to evaporate than alcohol, which leaves higher-proof whiskey in the barrel.) OK, with that resolved, what you’ll find is a classically structured barrel-proof bourbon, heavy with wood notes (and plenty of straight-up alcohol despite the lower proof level) up front but balanced by a surprising fruitiness underneath. Chewy with notes of figs, plums, and currants, it’s got a brooding character you don’t often see in bourbon and which is not the usual way Stagg presents itself. One worth exploring, as always. 16 years old. B+

William Larue Weller Bourbon – The blazing hot nose makes you think you’re in for nothing but burn, but this year’s Weller — never a highlight of the Antique Collection — has much more to show off. Lots of tobacco on the nose — both fresh and smoldering. A 136.2 proof bourbon at the (comparably) young age of 12 years old, it comes across as older than you initially expect. The tobacco and wood notes blow off after a time, bringing on restrained butterscotch sweetness, plus some banana and caramel notes. This is probably the most classically structured bourbon of the lot, with wood meeting ice cream toppings alongside a blistering overproof backbone. Plenty to enjoy for the traditionalists. B+

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye – As usual, this 6 year old rye is the odd man out in a collection populated by whiskeys two to three times its age. But last year Jim Murray made the untenably insane choice to name Handy his “Whisky of the Year,” cementing its place in the Collection pretty much eternally. This year’s expression is one of the better versions of the spirit. It’s a quite sweet rye, laden with plenty of baking spice and a particularly long gingerbread finish. The exceptional sweetness can become a bit overwhelming in the long haul, but that may be to some drinkers’ tastes. Not a lot of wood influence this year, a stark departure from 2012. I wonder what Murray will say. 128.4 proof. B+

$70 each / greatbourbon.com