Well, I suppose first things are first. For those of you who lend your support and readership to this blog I offer my apologies for such an extended absence. As those of you familiar with contemporary Kentucky weather know, our recent winters tend to be whiplash affairs with dry, sunny days in the 70′s sandwiched between snowstorms, bone chilling rain, and the occasional tornado. Call it global warming, blame it on sorcerers, whatever your belief system dictates we can agree Kentucky is Mother Nature’s Yahtzee board. The weather has taken a toll on my palate and nose and I refrained from reviewing in fear of misleading you or misrepresenting a product. Just in time for Christmas my palate has recovered from a limp and I can actually taste the difference between mouthwash and whiskey.
To me, nothing says America quite like winter. It was in warm taverns on cold nights in New England that a brave generation plotted the rise of a new nation. An open fire, crackling in the fireplace has become a symbol of home and hospitality, and warmed the hearts of many to help keep alive a season of giving and joy. The beauty of endless seas of white sheen, and playful icicles have inspired poets, playwrights, and artists, and lit up the faces of millions of children who first gazed on a canvas of untouched snow. Summer keeps the spirit of America alive, but winter keeps the heart. So when I sit by a warm fire, or see moonlight glinting off of fresh snow, I think back to how magical this season has been to so many for so long, and I pour myself a glass of the best winter companion, a whiskey that started it all for this country: rye whiskey.
Rye whiskey is seeing somewhat of a very welcome resurgence in the past few years. Relegated to dying labels and cheap blended whiskey type deals, out of nowhere rye rose from the ashes. Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts around the globe found a renewed passion for the Manhattan, and America’s founding whiskey. The bold, spicy flavor and botanical influences represent the things we find comforting about winter, and for me there is no better drink to warm you from the toes up.
Let’s welcome our challengers to the ring, in the left corner…
Willet Family Estate 4 Year Old straight Rye Whiskey
110 Proof (55% abv)
Pine needles, piercing rye spice, hefty sticky sweetness: sorghum and honey. Eucalyptus, fresh dill (at first I thought I was losing it, some research indicates this is a common observation of LDI ryes, although I’ve never noticed it before in Bulleit).
Big mouthfeel, large sticky spoonful of spiced honey up front, a mouthful of lemon-pine aromatics hover as a big blast of black pepper and rye spice flash bang your tongue. Some sun dried oak behind the curtain, as well as sweet peppermint and camphor, and sweet dill relish, briny spice.
Menthol coolness with some lingering honey sweetness are most prominent. Bitter oak shavings and pine sap make an appearance as peppery spices keeps your tongue buzzing.
Not particularly complex stuff but an excellent presentation of flavor. It’s easy drinking with great rye whiskey fundamentals at an interesting proof that allows a young whiskey some playing time.
8.5 (Very good)
Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
90 Proof (45% abv)
Very light, clean nose. Prominent notes of honey, tart apple, and crisp rye spice. Green tea, dry peppermint, anise, lemon balm and a bold, unique breeze of fresh salted melon that ties everything together.
Cool and dry, immediately you get a bright mix of floral, honeyed sweetness and floral fruit flavors. Orange blossom and apple. Before you get the the back of the sip dry, dusty oak is sweeping your front palate, wood spice and chili heat are crackling and sizzling on the back end, lighting the way for sweet Moroccan mint tea, lemon zest, and honeydew melon.
Notable bitterness, clean and floral, honeysuckle, spearmint, buzzing spice, and sweet tea.
Great potential, I wish this expression was at a higher proof, I think it has the best flavors of all of the ryes reviewed here, but lacks presenting them well because of the proof. The subtlety and earthiness of this pour could really shine at 100-110 proof and really make Handy being so rare an easier pill to swallow.
8.6 (Very good)
Rittenhouse Rye Straight Kentucky Rye Whiskey, Bottled in Bond
100 Proof (50% abv)
Hershey’s chocolate syrup, peanut brittle, and a cloud of acetone like polished wood sits above the murky, thick sweet notes. This polish gets out of the way the more you nose. Ticklish spice, salted toasted nuts, caramel round out a candied, pleasantly briny nose. Not unlike a Payday.
Creamy sweetness upfront, salty caramel with hints of honey. Dark chile pepper chocolate, with black pepper and cinnamon spice rolling evenly behind the sweet notes and straight into subdued wet oak, cinnamon syrup and wood spice.
Sticky bitter dark chocolate, bitter oak, varnish, spicy spearmint.
Oily but not particularly forceful. A bit of a light finish for 100 proof is probably the weakest part, and picking a weakness with this whiskey is truly nitpicking. Great dark chocolate flavors and well balanced spice, this pour is dark and mysterious up front with unique flavors and superb balance, but lacks the same power on the back end. I would love to see this at cask strength. I’m sure this would be a superstar straight from the barrel.
High West Rendevous Rye
92 Proof (46% abv)
Camphor and pine needles. Pleasant vanilla cupcake creaminess, light smokiness and pine sap, hints of lapsang Souchong, herbal and slightly medicinal. Hefty rye spice is apparent but not dominant. The depth of the older rye holds this together and binds everything with a honeyed center.
Sweet, gentle, and cooling. Creamy menthol, eucalyptus, peppermint, tame rye prickles, vanilla cake batter. Thick mouthfeel with a gliding quality. Tightly wrapped with a good presentation of flavor, the rye is most felt through its botanical notes, the creaminess and sweetness are very bourbon like, welcome additions to an elegant whiskey.
Short and nasal, good puffs of chlorophyll and sweet mint, sappy green wood, very faint cinnamon sweetness. There is a faint drying quality.
A bright and gentle whiskey. Creamy and herbal with well executed flavor. I would like to see this at a higher proof to really ramp some spice into it. The old rye ratio must be pretty heavy, as this drink is sweet and tamed like an old farm dog. A beautiful expression.
And so Rendezvous emerges victorious in this showdown. In a lineup of such fantastic, well made whiskies, really we all win. The diversity and craftsmanship that has made the bourbon market so adventurous is currently dusting the cobwebs off of rye whiskey, and we as customers stand at the apex of a great renaissance.
“To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.”
– Calvin Coolidge
I have never pretended to be very religious, and I doubt that will change anytime soon. And so I leave you with a quote that I feel like sums up a month and a season that many find great solace in. No matter your religion, or cultural background, for Americans this is a month of togetherness. I will always stand by the messages of unity, shared prosperity, and humility. So this holiday season, take a sip for me, give a gift or a hug to a loved one, and look in your neighbors’ basket to make sure they have enough. Happy Holidays to all of you. Until next time, you have the bridge.