Review: Rabbit Hole Distilling Bourbon and Rye

Rabbit Hole Distilling is a new producer of whiskey, based in bourbon’s heartland, Kentucky. The company recently broke ground on its own distillery in downtown Louisville; for now it is producing whiskey at another Kentucky distillery using its own mashbills and recipes.

Rabbit Hole hit the ground with three whiskies. The standbys — a bourbon and a rye — are reviewed here. We missed out on the third, a sourced bourbon that Rabbit Hole finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. (A gin arrived later.)

Thoughts on these two — none of which is bottled with a formal age statement — follow.

Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Bourbon – A four-grain bourbon, but not what you think: The mash is 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley, and 10% honey malted barley (a beer-centric barley with honey overtones; it’s not flavored with honey). “Over two years old.” The nose is closed off somewhat, offering restrained menthol notes, and lots of popcorn character. The palate is heavy with grain, but also rustic and loaded up with popcorn character. I do catch a whiff of honey on the back end — an earthy sweetness that provides a bit of balance to a whiskey that would clearly benefit from some extra maturity. A touch of dark chocolate lingers on the finish. 95 proof. B- / $46

Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Rye – 95% rye, 5% malted barley, also over two years old. Clearly youthful and a bit brash on the nose, where the whiskey melds barrel char with ample, toasty grains and some brown sugar notes. The palate finds more balance, a sweeter profile than the nose would indicate, with enough baking spice character to showcase the rye grain quite handily. Apple pie and bananas foster notes give the mid-palate a fun, fruity, chewy character that leads to a finish loaded with notes of honey and gingerbread. Impressive for a rye this young. 95 proof. A- / $59

rabbitholedistilling.com

Review: Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey Sherry Cask Finished

Luxco’s Limestone Branch Distillery brings us a new sourced product, Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey Sherry Cask Finished, made in honor of Minor Case Beam, grandfather of president Steve Beam and a rye whiskey fanatic back in the day.

There’s not a lot of production info here — it’s MGP rye, but the mashbill isn’t revealed. We do know it is aged for a mere two years, but it’s unclear if that is just the age in the original new oak barrel or if that includes the sherry cask finishing time. Also unknown: what kind of sherry is used for the finishing barrel.

Turns out none of that really matters. This is pretty amazing stuff regardless of its provenance.

The nose is immediately soft and quite approachable — a surprise given the whiskey’s age — with notes of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, and a side of juicy orange. That’s the sherry talking, and as the whiskey gets some air, those sweet citrus notes really open up to the point where they start to take over. Leading into the palate, again the whiskey is very gentle and easygoing, taking a caramel core and revealing notes of chocolate, smoky bacon, some red fruits, hints of red wine, and — as the finish arises — oranges and tangerines, though here it tends more toward peel than fruit.

Very soothing and supple, it’s a young rye whiskey that drinks a lot like a much older bourbon — the sherry perhaps working to counteract some of that classic rye spice and the brashness that comes with youth — and which offers tons of versatility as well as simple enjoyment.

90 proof.

A- / $50 / limestonebranch.com

Review: Whiskeys of Reservoir Distillery – Bourbon, Rye, Wheat Whiskey, and Gray Ghost

When deciding how to formulate their mashbills, Reservoir Distillery took one of the more unique approaches among craft whiskey-makers. They decided to not use a mashbill. Well, at least not a complicated one. Defying tradition, they concentrated on 100% grain expressions in their line up, all bottled at 100 proof. Their bourbon, for example, is 100% corn. Their rye is 100% rye. You get the idea.

Usually a flavoring grain is an important component, particularly in bourbon, but surprisingly Reservoir has managed to create a flavorful spirit out of just high quality, locally sourced grains and small, heavily charred barrels (no larger than 10 gallons and all with a #5 char). For those that would argue Reservoir’s approach to whiskey-making limits the potential complexity of their whiskey, distillery co-founder Dave Cuttino counters that their technique actually allows them to cater to the entire spectrum of whiskey drinkers by giving them the ingredients to make whatever “mashbill” they prefer (high rye, low rye, wheated, or even a wheated rye).

The potential for in-home blending aside, Reservoir Distillery’s whiskeys stand up just fine on their own. Thoughts follow. (Again, note all are 100 proof.)

Reservoir Bourbon Whiskey – Corn-sweet on the nose with notes of toasted cinnamon, pepper, and gingerbread. It’s bright on the palate and hot; caramel apple and candy corn notes evolve into sweet butter, maraschino cherry, and vanilla on the finish. Underneath the heat, there’s a lot to admire. A- / $45 (375ml)

Reservoir Rye Whiskey – Clearly 100% rye on the nose here with citrus fruit notes all over it. The palate is spicy but not overpowering with layers of bubblegum, cracked black pepper, and some licorice. The finish is warming but a little short. B+ / $45 (375ml)

Reservoir Wheat Whiskey – This may be the most “wheaty” of wheaters. There’s oak, fresh mint, and cinnamon red hots on the nose. The palate is soft despite the proof, with notes of honey, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla. The finish is syrupy with some slightly grassy notes. B+ / $45 (375ml)

Gray Ghost Whiskey – The Gray Ghost line is a limited release showcasing Reservoir Distillery’s own experiments with different blends. My sample had an effective mashbill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% wheat. It was aged in eight 3-gallon barrels for 3 to 3.5 years, which is exceptionally long for such a small barrel. There’s a slight, but not unpleasant, warehouse funk on the nose, followed by honey and orange marmalade notes. The palate is initially hot and full of cloves, but it develops into a generous finish with cinnamon and toffee notes reminiscent of a much older whiskey. Reviewed: Year 17, Batch 2. A- / $90 (375ml)

reservoirdistillery.com

Review: Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon is a standby of most bars — its metal-ringed paper label (excuse me: parchment bib) an eye-catcher (and the whiskey inside not bad in its own right).

Now the brand is making a natural line extension: Rye. Brand owner Beam assures us this is different from the other ryes that have been flooding the market of late. Here’s how:

Basil Hayden’s Bourbon has long been known for its trademark spicy finish, resulting from the use of twice as much rye as traditional bourbons. Taking inspiration from this beloved rye spiciness, Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey is a natural progression for the brand.

A Kentucky straight rye whiskey, Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey achieves its deepened and distinctive taste with the addition of a unique, re-barreled rye. The re-barreled rye begins as a four-year-old traditional rye whiskey, which is then dumped out and further aged an additional seven years in newly charred quarter cask oak barrels. Just a touch of this re-barreled rye expertly blended with traditional Kentucky straight rye whiskey amplifies the warm aroma of baking spices and adds differentiating depth to Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey.

As rye goes, it’s something of an odd duck. The nose is classically aromatic with baking spices, lots of cloves, lots of ginger, but also plenty of maple syrup and menthol notes, too. Sweet but a little dull, it feels a bit underdeveloped, perhaps too youthful despite those drops of re-barreled rye.

The palate is quite gummy, lower in alcohol than perhaps it should be, with tougher, sharper barrel char notes muddled together with brown sugar and caramel, topped with a splash of mint syrup. Cereal notes push through all of this and claw at the back of the throat — it almost feels like that gummy sweetness is an attempt to cover that cereal up, with a finish that hints at chocolate milk. It sort of works, but drinking it on its own the experience is muddy and imperfect. Best reserved for mixing.

80 proof.

B- / $45 / basilhaydens.com

Tasting Report: Whiskies of the World Expo San Francisco 2017

This year’s Whiskies of the World was shaping up beautifully, but a tragic tumble down the stairs (PSA: Don’t text and navigate staircases!) cut my evening very short. I had time to taste only a handful of spirits before leaving for treatment — shout-out to the crack ER team at Kaiser San Rafael! — but I did make it out with my tasting notes, at least.

I promise to make it up to you at WotW 2018. Until then, thoughts…

Scotch

Highland Park Fire Edition / A / drinking beautifully, light and supple, with lively floral overtones
Deanston 18 Years Old / A / a big surprise; bold and heavy with caramel, with shocking depth
Glengoyne Cask Strength / B+ / ample youth and cereal notes, with a light, sweet lemon finish
Compass Box Three Year Old Deluxe / B / nothing fancy, young and mushroomy; what’s the fuss about?
Glencadam 25 Years Old / B+ / quiet, with light vanilla and fruit notes; subtle
anCnoc 24 Years Old / A / chewy, loaded with raisins and cherry notes, plums on the back end

America

Low Gap Bavarian Wheat Whiskey Sauternes Finish / B+ / exotic, tropical fruit, dark toasted bread, and golden raisins
Low Gap 2013 Port Barrel Rye (barrel sample) / A- / chewy Port notes, with lots of heavy raisin and toasty oak notes; 4 years old now — no bottling decision made yet
Low Cap 2012 Cognac Barrel Rye (barrel sample) / B+ / hotter on the nose, with less barrel influence; needs more time; 5 years old now — to be bottled at age 8
High West Rendezvous Rye / A / always a standout; old rye with lots of apple and spice, classically structured
High West A Midwinter Nights Dram 4.6 / A / mint and cherry notes, with some chocolate — a lovely rendition of the modern classic AMND

Japan

Fukano Whisky / B / single-distilled rice whisky; big cereal character surprises, slightly vegetal
Fukano Whisky Single Cask / B+ / a step up, with bolder apple and raisin, citrus oil notes
Ohishi Whisky Single Sherry Cask / A- / bold sherry  character with the lightness of a rice base; lovely combination

Re-Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (2017)

crown royal rye

In 2015, I reviewed Crown Royal Northern Rye. I thought it was OK. I graded it a B.

Later that year Jim Murray named it his whisky of the year, and all hell broke loose. A $30 Canadian whisky is the best whisky of the year? Sales went through the roof. The price shot up. Everyone asked me about the little whisky that could.

That’s bothered me for the last two years. Was I wrong? Was I missing the plot on this one? I reached out to Crown Royal to see if I could get a fresh sample, in order to see if I could suss out what I missed.

To refresh your memory, this is a 90% rye, bottled with no age statement. Let’s give a brand new bottle a fresh look.

Well, much as I said previously, the nose is loaded with dried apple notes, cinnamon, and caramel. It’s apple pie in a glass at least aromatically. I can see how someone would like it, but the fruit is so blown out that it strikes one as a a flavored spirit.

The palate offers few surprises, though the caramel is stronger and notes of barrel char, and, now that I explore it more deeply, a character closer to baked pear than apple. Slightly gummy and fragrant with cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, it’s got sweetness pushed almost to the breaking point, with a lasting finish that is fragrant but gummy.

In the end: I still don’t understand the fuss. In fact, I like it even less now than I used to. And no, I’m not trying to be contrarian, mom.

90 proof.

B- / $45 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Hochstadter’s Family Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey 16 Years Old

Your best bet for old rye whiskey these days seems to be good old Albert Distillers Limited, which has been pumping the stuff out for decades.

Cooper Spirits bottled up some of this under its Hochstadter’s line (known for its Slow & Low and Vatted Rye bottlings) and calls it Hochstadter’s Family Reserve. Imbued with a 16 year old age statement, it’s made from a 100% rye recipe and bottled at cask strength.

This is a very sweet whiskey, heavy on the nose with notes of mint, tangerine, and lemon oil. Quite sharp and hot, the whiskey offers a palate of toasty oak impregnated with plenty of sweet fruit, including strawberries and oranges, and a thick layer of brown sugar. Water’s a big help here, and though it tempers the heat, it isn’t as effective with the sweetness, which endures for the long haul. The finish keeps everything on a familiar path, all torched sugar and fresh fruit — though tamed with water it does allow more of that classic rye baking spice to make it to the fore.

Old 100% rye is more common than it used to be, and you’ll still pay a pretty penny for it. At $200 for what amounts to a fairly simple whiskey though, that remains a tough trigger to pull.

123.8 proof.

B / $200 / hochstadtersfamilyreserve.com

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