American Single Malt is only just now on the verge of becoming an official category, but Kentucky’s New Riff has already begun applying their trademark tinkering to the style. And they’ve been doing it for a while, apparently. The distillery is no stranger to unique malted whiskeys, delivering impressive bourbon and rye expressions over the years, but they’ve also been working quietly behind the scenes on 100% malted barley offerings like this new Sour Mash Single Malt. New Riff whiskeys are often somewhat complex affairs, but this one may take the cake. Per New Riff:
“On one hand, it is entirely different from everything else we’ve ever made,” said co-founder Jay Erisman. “But on the other, it is entirely faithful to our mission to be a ‘new riff on an old tradition,’ using the sour mash regimen to explore another classic whiskey tradition.” Anticipated to be released annually, the exact blend of New Riff Sour Mash Single Malt will change slightly from year to year. The 2023 release, comprised of five of the six recipes, consists of whiskey distilled from 2014-2016, ranging from 7 to 8 years old.
Six different mashbills have been created using a range of different malted barleys and a variety of cask types, Erisman said, which are vatted together into one harmonious expression. The mashbills include four whiskeys made with 100% barley varietals—Golden Promise, Maris Otter, Chevallier heirloom barley, and Scottish peated barley malt—as well as two beer-inspired mashbills based on classic Barleywine and Belgian Quadrupel recipes. Each offers a distinct flavor profile. The malt whiskeys have matured in a variety of barrels, ranging from new charred oak, de-charred toasted oak, red wine casks, Portuguese brandy casks, classic sherried oak casks, and more.
Got all that? I’m not sure I do either.
Initially, the nose is burley with oak and barrel char, but as it opens, all those cask finishes come into play with a mix of sherry notes – dry and oxidized – alongside golden raisin, baked apricot, drying flowers, and a bit of old floorboards all accented by a gentle lacing of cigar smoke. The palate kicks off with a sweet mélange of malts: smoked, sherried, chocolaty, and even some that, as advertised, evoke a heavy Belgian beer style. It’s honestly a bit hard to pin the flavors down without dipping back into the glass repeatedly. Some welcome coherence arrives on the midpalate which offers up wine-forward notes of currants, grilled plums, and toasted almond before transitioning to chocolate sauce and baked stone fruit on a warm, peppery, and peat-kissed finish.
Outside of their single barrels, New Riff has yet to release anything over 100 proof (correct me if I’m wrong), but they chose to bottle this new single malt at cask strength while “kindly” suggesting on their website to add a splash of water. I followed their guidance and found the suggestion to be required reading as even a small amount of water rounded some of the rougher edges and brought a lot more symmetry to this whiskey’s wide-ranging flavor palate.
B+ / $70 / newriffdistilling.com