All but Lost, Rye Is Revived as the Next Boutique Find
“It’s becoming impossible now,” said Paul Joseph, CVI’s president, who guards his sources carefully. He refused to say who produced the Black Maple Hill, a complex, rich whiskey that combines fruity ginger and caramel aromas with a spicy Sichuan peppercorn quality. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he said.
Fair enough. Aficionados spend an enormous amount of time trying to trace the origin of whiskeys sold by independent bottlers like CVI. Fortunately for their search, not that many distillers make rye whiskey, nor did they 18 years ago, and most of those distilleries are in Kentucky, where rye is but an afterthought to the big-business bourbons.
One significant exception was our No. 2 rye, the Old Potrero Straight Single Malt, intense and grassy enough to be reminiscent of Irish whiskey, but with an overlay of peppermint, spice and fruit. Old Potrero comes from Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, an offshoot of the Anchor Brewing Company, which lovingly recreates historic whiskey styles, like this, aged in what Old Potrero calls the 19th-century style, using charred oak barrels. For its 18th-century style, Old Potrero uses lightly toasted barrels instead. Old Potrero’s 18th-century was the only whiskey in the tasting that we didn’t much care for. We found it oddly sour and very hot.
Old Potrero is unusual in another regard. It is distilled only from 100 percent rye malt. To be called rye whiskey, Federal law requires that no less than 51 percent rye be used, malted or unmalted. The rest of the blend can come from corn, wheat, barley or other grains. Theoretically, rye and bourbon can be very similar, with rye being 51 percent rye and 49 percent corn, and bourbon the reverse. Typically, though, producers use a higher proportion of rye in their blends, or split the difference in the remainder among corn and barley. To be called straight rye, the whiskey must be aged at least two years in new charred oak barrels.
In our top 10, we had three 21-year-old ryes. These were also the most expensive bottles in the tasting. We especially liked the complexity of the Classic Cask ($110) and the Hirsch Selection ($120). The Rittenhouse Single Barrel ($140) was also complex, but had an eye-searing heat that required the addition of a little water to mellow it out. By contrast, Rittenhouse’s standard $17 rye was deliciously pure and a great deal. Our best value, though, was the six-year-old Sazerac for $30, an exceptionally smooth whiskey that accented rye’s grassy side. It would be great, naturally, in a Sazerac cocktail. Sazerac has also issued a superb 18-year-old rye, which we were not able to find for the tasting.
Incidentally, while the more expensive whiskeys did best in our tasting, we also very much liked the old standbys Old Overholt ($21) and Jim Beam ($20). Both are fine ryes, though they couldn’t crack our top 10.
Because specialized rye production has essentially been dead for so many years, very little aged rye exists anymore. While companies like CVI, Sazerac and Michter’s are still looking to scare up a few barrels here or there, for the most part when the supply of, say, 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve runs out, that’s it.
“Rye is very, very precious at this point,” said Joe Magliocco, president of Chatham Importers, which owns Michter’s with Kentucky Bourbon Distillers.
It is also still a microscopic category, compared with bourbon, vodka or Scotch. Jim Beam, which produces both Old Overholt and Jim Beam ryes, shipped 32,000 cases of rye in 2005. By contrast, it shipped 3.9 million cases of bourbon.
Nonetheless, the rye seed has been replanted. “People are gearing up,” said Mr. Joseph of CVI. “There will be an overabundance of whiskey in five years, but not aged whiskey, young whiskey.”
Tasting Report: George Washington Might Approve
Black Maple Hill Single Barrel 18 years 95 proof
Complex, rich and almost fruity with aromas of ginger and caramel.
Old Potrero Straight Single Malt 19th-century style 90 proof
Intense and unusual, with peppermint, spice, ginger and cedar flavors.
Sazerac Straight 6 years 90 proof
Spicy, grassy and surprisingly smooth with lingering flavors.
Michter’s Straight 10 years 92.8 proof
Sweet, spicy, subtle and complex; great for cocktails.
Van Winkle Family Reserve 13 years 95.6 proof
Dark and complex, with full-throttle aromas of mint, pepper and spice.
The Classic Cask Kentucky Straight 21 years 90 proof
Sweet and spicy with balanced flavors of anise, caramel and cinnamon.
Hirsch Selection 21 years 93 proof
Complex, lingering spice and caramel flavors.
Rittenhouse Single Barrel 21 years 90 proof
Big, dark, spicy and hot on the palate; mellows with a splash of water.
Rittenhouse Straight 100 Proof
Grassy, airy, grainy aroma; ginger and spice flavors.
Wild Turkey 101 Proof
Bright, with fruity, floral aromas; very hot.
Source: NY Times