Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Rise of the Ryes

Rye whiskey has certainly risen in popularity over the past several years. A number of specialty high-end ryes are popping up all over the place, including some aged a quarter century or so and costing upwards of $150.

The subject of this post is more accessible ryes in the $25 or less range. While I like the spicy, aggressive aspects of rye whiskey, if I'm going to spend $150 on anything to sit back and contemplate, it's more than likely going to be scotch.

I collected a handful of mid-low price range ryes for a comparative tasting and an assessment of how each of the ryes fared on their own, and as a potential mixer in such classic rye cocktails as the Manhattan and Sazerac cocktail. There are a number of interesting articles/posts out on the web. A few that I came across are worth checking out, both in terms of history/information on rye whiskey as well as others' tasting experiences:

eGullet rye writeup here
Cocktail Chronicles tasting here
Gary Regan article here

As for the ryes in the tasting, I selected the following based on some past history and based on some research into recommended brands in this range:

1. Wild Turkey Rye, 101 proof, $17
2. Wild Turkey Russel's Reserve Rye, 90 proof, $25
3. Sazerac 6 year old, 90 proof, $22, single barrel #109 ("hand selected by the staff of Hi-Time Cellars")
4. Old Overholt, 80 proof, $13
5. Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond, 100 proof, $17
6. Jim Beam Straight Rye, 80 proof, $17

Following are the tasting notes and ratings. Whiskies were tasted with Rob and were tasted blind.

1. Wild Turkey Rye
Matt's Notes
Nose - Nutmeg spiciness
Taste - Lots of flavor development. Incredible overall balance. Best in class.
Finish - Nice spicy finish
Rating - 90

Rob's Notes
Vanilla and wood on the nose, Very full bodied. Higher proof (?).
Rating - 92

2. Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve Rye
Matt's Notes
Nose - Light aromas, sweet toffee
Taste - Not a lot of flavors developing, but a decent overall balance
Finish - slightly short and hot
Rating - 88

Rob's Notes
Sweet maple on the nose. Spice and pepper on the finish. A bit harsh.
Rating - 87

3. Sazerac 6y old
Matt's Notes
Nose - Some good buttery oak and grainy notes
Taste - Smooth, nice balance, but a bit lacking in complexity.
Finish - Nice long finish
Rating - 87

Rob's Notes
Sweet grain and caramel flavors. Full-bodied with a nice finish.
Rating - 90

4. Old Overholt
Matt's Notes
Nose - Banana chips, some oaky rye notes.
Taste - Smooth. Non-complex, but more so than the Jim Beam.
Finish - Decent spicy finish
Rating - 86

Rob's Notes
Banana chips on the nose as well as oak. Thin mid-palate and rather short finish.
Rating - 85

5. Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond
Matt's Notes
Nose - Something in the nose I don't care for - not sure if it's toasty oak or the grain
Flavor - Good flavors, but more of the nose character
Finish - Fairly harsh
Rating - 85

Rob's Notes
Subdued, but pleasant nose. Full-bodied, bourbon-like. A bit of hotness in the finish.
Rating - 89

6. Jim Beam
Matt's Notes
Nose - Banana chips again (more than Old Overholt)
Flavor - Not a lot of flavor development. Sweet middle-palate
Finish - short
Rating - 84

Rob's Notes
Turpentine on the nose. Woodsy and harsh on the finish.
Rating - 81

Overall Ratings:
*** First Place ***
Wild Turkey Rye (92/90)
Unanimously voted the best of the bunch. Great rye character, good complexity and wears its high proof well.

** The Rest **
#2 Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve (88)
#3 Sazerac 6y old (87)
#4 Old Overholt (86)
#5 Rittenhouse bottled in bond (85)
#6 JimBeam (84)

#2 Sazerac 6y old (90)
#3 Rittenhouse bottled in bond (89)
#4 Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve (87)
#5 Old Overholt (85)
#6 Jim Beam (81)

Final Notes - Maybe a bit of a surprise that the Wild Turkey 101 proof Rye carried the day, but it was the clear winner with a solid combination of complexity and rye spiciness. All of this despite (or because?) of its high proof. The largest scoring disparity was the Rittenhouse bottled in bond, which had something on the nose, and to a lesser extend the palate, that I was not enamored with. Jim Beam was the clear loser of the bunch. We found it to be simple and lacking in character, which was a bit disappointing based on its high marks in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible.


  1. Great posts.
    Hey I'm currently very intrigued by Chartreuse and wonder what you have to say about that. And maybe for a future taste test: the anis-based liquors. I have something now called "Armand Guy Pontalier-Anis" from Silver Lake Wines that is quite nice. Wonder how it'd stand up to like-minded things.

  2. anonymous,

    I checked out the Silver Lake Wines site. They carry the Chartreuse VEP which is extra aged in oak (and quite expensive!). I have not tried that one. I have tried the standard Chartreuse green variety (~$46) and it is an amazing and complex liquer - definitely worth a try if you're on the fence.

    Armand Guy Pontalier-Anis is a pastis I believe. How do you take it? I like my pastis (1 part) with cold water (5 parts). It is also good in the classic "variations": the Mauresque (with orgeat syrup), the Perroquet (mint syrup) and the Tomate (grenadine). Our house brand is Granier (My wife Julie is a huge pastis fan). I like the idea of a tasting in the future. Pernod, Ricard, Granier, Armand Guy...