Review: Rebel Yell Bourbon, Rye, and American Whiskey

rebel yell

St. Louis-based Luxco (which also makes Ezra Brooks and Admiral Nelson’s Rum) is behind Rebel Yell, a line of value whiskeys which has recently begun to show up more and more in bars and on store shelves. What’s the haps about “The Yell?”

The Rebel Yell line begins with its core product — old-school Kentucky Bourbon, in the form of a brand dating back to 1849. But recently Rebel Yell has been expanding, both into flavored whiskeys (not reviewed here) as well as a rye and a blended whiskey, both of which we taste below.

Let’s put this trio to the test!

Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Made from a corn/barley/wheat mashbill. No age statement, but this wheater is clearly quite young. Heavy roasted corn notes dominate the nose, with just a touch of baking spice underneath. On the palate, there’s plenty more of that corn character, plus some sweet chocolate notes that emerge only after the corniness begins to fade. This sustains for much longer than you’d think, taking the initially quite rustic whiskey out on a nicely seductive note. A very basic whiskey, there’s just not much more to report. 80 proof. C+ / $15

Rebel Yell Small Batch Rye Whiskey – Made from a mash of rye, corn, and barley. Distilled in Indiana by MGP, aged two years. Much spicier on the nose than the bourbon, with gentler, grain-fueled notes coming up underneath. The palate is surprisingly full of life, with a rounded body that showcases both the spice and the cereal notes, including a bit of cherry fruit on the back end. All in all, the whiskey features a relatively well-balanced structure that belies its youth but showcases an overall better construction. Rebel Yell Rye is a capable mixer at the least, a surprisingly acceptable sipper at the best. 90 proof. B / $21

Rebel Yell American Whiskey – A 50-50 blend of the bourbon and rye above, all in one bottle, but raised up to 90 proof rather than the expected 85. Aged 2 years. This comes across like, well, a pretty even mix of the two spirits — featuring both the baking spices of the rye plus the ample corn notes of the bourbon. It’s not a bad combination in the abstract, but the two whiskeys don’t entirely complement each other in a meaningful way. The playfulness of the rye is ultimately dulled by the more brash corn character of the bourbon, though the flipside — the spicier rye giving the corn a boost — could also be said to be true. In the end, the whiskey lands right where it should — somewhere in between the two spirits that go into it. 90 proof. B- / $21

rebelyellbourbon.com

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

It was another unforgettable year at 2015’s WhiskyFest, with some of whiskydom’s most cherished icons on tap for tasting, and plenty of old friends to mingle and catch up with.

Of course, many of those old friends come in liquid form, and I had ample opportunity to revisit plenty of classic whiskies while spending time with a number of newer drams. Here’s a brief look at everything I tasted at the San Francisco installment of this essential spirits show.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2015

Scotch

Tullibardine 20 Years Old / A- / showing beautifully, a nice balance of vanilla and cereal notes (bourbon barrel aged)
Tullibardine 25 Years Old / A / a much different experience, with gorgeous nougat and honey notes (sherry barrel aged)
Balvenie 50 Years Old Cask 4567 / A+ / snuck out from behind a curtain, this is Balvenie shining at its brightest; not old and hoary but light on its feet and ready to dance; explosive, with dried berries, dense toffee, baking spices, and florals on the finish; 2 casks produced, the other cask is said to be very different
Balvenie 15 Years Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask / A- / very caramel heavy, racy but dense, with lots of brown sugar notes
William Grant Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21 Years Old / A- / blended whiskey from three silent stills; restrained with toffee, nuts, and some kippered notes; comes out next year
Glengoyne 18 Years Old / A- / big body, notes of grain and fruitcake
Glengoyne 21 Years Old / B+ / traditional malt, with cocoa hints
Aberlour Scapa Skiren / B / lots of sweetness, with a malty backbone – plus melon, sweet mandarins
Highland Park Odin / B+ / dense and handsome, sherry with some smoky charcoal notes; not in love with this today
Dewar’s Scratched Cask / B+ / Dewar’s White with a little “scratched cask” aging; not readily distinguishable from the entry level blend, though quite powerful
Aultmore 12 Years Old / B+ / heavy vanilla and chocolate, dense with shortbread notes
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1964 / A- / heavy wood notes play with raisins and spice; this has seen wood for too long, though
Glenfarclas Family Cask 1984 / A / right where it’s at; vibrant and exotic, with tropical notes, plum pudding, and hints of grain; absolutely gorgeous
Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend / B+ / well-balanced, malty with some smoky notes
Compass Box Hedonism 15 Years Old Anniversary Bottling / A- / a blend of single grains, all 20 years old or more; fun toffee and fruit trifle notes
Compass Box Flaming Heart 2015 Limited Edition / A- / rich, smoky, with a gentler fruit core
Compass Box This Is Not a Luxury Whisky / B / a blend of single malts and grain whisky, 19 to 40 years of age; Compass Box got into trouble over this one (more on that later); I got a little mustiness and mushroom notes here, with creosote bubbling up; not feeling it tonight

American

McKenzie Pure Potstill Whiskey / B- / American pure pot still? wacky! this one is very young, but that hint of classic Irish sweetness hits hard on the finish
Sonoma County Distilling Company Truffle Whiskey / B+ / 100% rye, with shaved truffles added to the barrel; not what you’re expecting, but with forest floor notes a-plenty
Stranahan’s Snowflake (Dec. 2014) / A- / easily my favorite Snowflake bottling to date, beautiful balance of sweet and spice, very pretty
Stranahan’s Diamond Peak / A- / lush and big with dried fruits, spices, and gentle granary notes; another winner from Colorado
Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Years Old / A- / a classically structured bourbon, dense and stylish, with a spicy finish
Pappy Van Winkle 23 Years Old / A+ / there’s a reason this whiskey is the most expensive bourbon made in America — it’s the best thing anyone is making in the country; dense raisin, cinnamon, vanilla, toffee… it just goes on and on with layer after layer of goodness
High West A Midwinter’s Night Dram Act 3 / A / my favorite AMND yet; cherry and herbs in balance (not blown out), with a licorice kick
High West Bourye Batch 15B03 / A / still gorgous; syrupy and fruity, unctuous at times
High West Single Malt 1 Month Old / NR / a work in progress, surprisingly gentle for single malt but a fun look at something coming down the pipeline… give it another 5 years at least

Canadian

Forty Creek Confederation Oak / A / beautiful vanilla and maple notes, but dense and balanced
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve / A- / very enjoyable, candy corn and chocolate raisins at play
Forty Creek Evolution / A- / again, quite candylike and very sweet; 9000 bottles made
WhistlePig Straight Rye Old World Sauternes Finish 12 Years Old / A- / a very strong and sweet whisky (just one of the components of the new Old World bottling), with lemon curd notes

Other

Diplomatico Blanco Rum 6 Years Old / B / solid, uninspired as a sipper though
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Vintage 2000 / A / vintage Diplomatico; gorgeous, sherry-finished rum, balanced perfectly

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

sonomacountydistilling.com

Tasting Lost Spirits Whiskey Experiments

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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

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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

oppidanspirits.com

Review: Buffalo Trace Antique Collection 2015 Edition

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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 / greatbourbon.com

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 / pikesvillerye.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]