Rye Whiskey
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The Rye Revival– Revisited
Best Rye Whiskey

By the 1780s, around 5,000 log stillhouses were operating in Pennsylvania and Maryland producing the fragrant whiskey that came to be known as “rye”. Mostly by German immigrants that had been using rye in the production of schnapps and vodka back in northern Europe. 70 years later in San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era, bars lined every block of the Barbary Coast— and the bartenders’ staple was rye whiskey. Rye was usually served straight, but the distinctive flavor made it a perfect mixer during the early years of the cocktail. Three of the most popular classic cocktails were originally created for rye whiskey — the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan & the Sazerac.

Before the Prohibition, there were over 50 brands of rye. When Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920, many enterprising residents of small towns across America chose to become outlaws – They produced thousands of kegs per month, supplying Al Capone and other gangs who in turn filled the demand of speakeasies throughout Chicago, New York and all the way west to San Francisco.

After prohibition ended and liquor became legal again, most American whiskey distilleries ceased production, and rye whiskey practically disappeared. By the 1980s, production of rye whiskies had all but vanished from its Mid-Atlantic homeland. For almost six decades since WWII, (with the exception of a brief cocktail-crazed period during the “Mad Men” era in the late 50’s), bourbon had taken over as the American whiskey of choice.

Then America’s drinking habits began to change. Around the beginning of the new millennium, we saw an emergence and popularity of mixology and cocktails. Foodies and gastronomes started a slow food trend— which carried over to a heightened interest in artisanal, hand-crafted spirits. Suddenly, there was a wave of sybaritic epicureans seeking new taste sensations and rediscovering old ones.

It was only until 2006 that small batch rye whiskey finally returned to the market, available for the first time in 85 years. Branching out from a handful of large, established bourbon companies, small batch distilleries have popped up across the country. These modern pioneers have dusted off old family records and great grandpa's handed-down recipes to create spirits deeply rooted in tradition. Specialty rye had been reborn, even though bourbon and Tennessee whiskey still accounts for 3/4 of American whiskey production. A decade ago in this country you could only find six brands of rye. Now there are more than 120 brands, and rye whiskey has become the go-to craft spirit of the moment.

Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51% rye grain by law, sometimes with barley, corn and other grains blended in. Most of the newer, small-batch brands use 100% rye. Ryes must be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof), and aged in new, charred oak barrels, used one-time only. Ryes labeled as "straight" must be aged for at least two years.

Rye was once a standard ingredient in Canadian whiskey, but now usually contains mostly corn and wheat— and can still be legally labeled “rye whiskey" in Canada.

Rye whiskies are typically dry, peppery, and grainy, with complex flavors bursting with fruit, walnuts, and spice. This distinctly bold assertive character is embraced by a dedicated and growing following of discerning whiskey fans.

 

The Great Rye Whiskey Tasting of 2014

 

The Tasting:
The Fifty Best held a “blind” tasting of 20 American rye whiskies with 20 pre-qualified judges. Strict tasting rules were applied. The order of service was established beforehand by lottery. Each of the ryes were poured into fresh glasses from new sealed bottles, and served slightly above room temperature. Only ice water, neutral unflavored unsalted crackers and bar snacks were available to cleanse the palate. The judges tasted through two flights of 7 ryes and one flight of 6 ryes.

The judges wrote down their impressions of each product on score sheets. The scoring was done on a 5-point system, with 5 as the best. Double-Gold and Gold medals were awarded according to a set range of final point scores received from the judges. The scores were exceptionally high overall, and there were no Silver or Bronze medals awarded in this tasting.

The tasting notes that follow are summaries of the judges’ opinions, with all replicated commentary eliminated. The states of origin are identified for each brand.

 

Here are the final results:



Knob Creek Rye



DOUBLE-GOLD MEDAL WINNERS:

Knob Creek
(Kentucky)

Nose: Cherry, cola, sarsaparilla, brown sugar, toffee, vanilla, nougat, creamy, egg nog, banana, fruity, pollen, licorice, anise.
Palate: Dried cherries, citrus, ginger, herbs, walnuts, rye flour, clove, black pepper, oregano, pine, dry oak, light smoke, silky, balanced.
Finish: Vanilla, caramel, buttery, sweet, pepper, spicy, oaky, smoky, mellow, delicate.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Batch No. 12
Heritage Distilling Co. (Washington)

Nose: Toffee, buttery, vanilla, vanilla Coke, root beer, dried fruits, toast, grain, clove, spice, pine.
Palate: Apricot, cherry, plum, dried fruit, cola, honey, brown sugar, toffee, cookies, cocoa, roasted nuts, almond, vegetal, herbal, rye, dough, grain, spicy, crisp, clean, well balanced.
Finish: Honey, vanilla, cherry, zesty, mild spice.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Batch No. 12 Rye



Ranger Creek .44 Rye



Ranger Creek .44
Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling (Texas)

Nose: Nougat, toffee, honeysuckle, honey, vanilla, sugar cane, cherry, plums, maple, walnut, leather, tobacco, oak.
Palate: Cherry, apricot, dried fruit, caramel, vanilla, toffee, marzipan, ginger, white pepper, sandalwood, mint, clove, nutty, wheat, rye flour, dough.
Finish: Clove, peppery, tropical fruit, roasted tobacco, leather, oak wood.

Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Sazerac
(Kentucky)

Nose: Cocoa, bitter chocolate, apple, apricot, clove, mint, cayenne, herbs, grain, malt, sweet nuttiness, sherried scotch, leather.
Palate: Apricot, strawberries, pineapple, green apple, honey, creamy, toffee, macadamia nuts, nutty, grain, sweet corn, ginger, green pepper, green olive, potato, light tobacco, hickory, oak.
Finish: Honey, spice, zesty, grassy, light, nice, smooth, well balanced.


Double-Gold Medal
Double-Gold medal



Sazerac Rye



Monterey Batch 20 Rye



Monterey Batch 20
Fog's End Distillery (California)

Nose: Butterscotch, brown sugar, caramel, vanilla, honey, sweet cream, buttered popcorn, marshmallow, maple syrup, brittle, peanuts, nutty, cherry, banana.
Palate: Sugar cane, cotton candy, butterscotch, treacle, buttery, creamy, honey, vanilla, caramel apple, honeysuckle, banana, slightly nutty, almonds, clove, grassy, oak, well balanced.
Finish: Vanilla, creamy, buttery, nutmeg, mint, peppery, fresh tobacco, oak, smooth.


Double-Gold Medal
Double-Gold medal





Wigle Deep Cut
Cask Strength Organic
Wigle Whiskey (Pennsylvania)

Nose: Caramel, sugar cane, brown sugar, honey, molasses, banana, starfruit, floral, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, spice, nutty.
Palate: Brown sugar, sugar cane, honey, nougat, treacle, dried fruit, orange zest, cinnamon, pepper, green pepper, black pepper, spice, peppermint, cut grass, wood.
Finish: Cola, lemon, tobacco, spicy, pepper, creamy, smooth, gentle fade.


Double-Gold Medal
Double-Gold medal



Wigle Deep Cut Cask Strength Organic Rye



Feisty Monongahela Style Rye



Feisty
Monongahela Style
Feisty Spirits Distillery (Colorado)

Nose: Toffee, caramel, honey, vanilla, sugar cane, grain, cinnamon, lemony, citrus, apple, green apple, herbal, floral, walnuts.
Palate: Tropical fruit, grape, cherry, plum, apricot, herbs, black pepper, coffee, nougat, nutty, walnuts, tobacco, sherry, charred oak, wood barrel, sweet wood, woody.
Finish: Creamy, vanilla, sweet caramel apple, pepper, smooth, clean, superb.

Double-Gold Medal
Double-Gold medal



GOLD MEDAL WINNERS:

Roundstone
92 Proof
Catoctin Creek Distilling (Virginia)

Nose: Cocoa, vanilla, cloves, green tea leaves, cut grass, floral, subtle.
Palate: Honey, vanilla, pistachio, banana, date, fig, dried dark fruit, walnuts, herbal tea, herbs, peppermint, spice, toast, leather, zesty, lovely wood.
Finish: Spice, peppery, rye, grain, medium.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Roundstone Rye 92 Proof



Legs Diamond Aged Rye



Legs Diamond
Aged Rye
Nahmias et Fils Distillery (New York)

Nose: Molasses, honey, caramel, caramel corn, butter cookie, cream, citrus, walnut, clove, nutmeg, white pepper, black pepper, slight mint, leather, charred oak, light peat.
Palate: Green apple, dried fruit, toffee, nougat, rye flour, nutty, leather, oaky, gentle, delicious.
Finish: Toast, pepper, light, smooth, delicate, well balanced, delicious.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Dark Horse Reunion
Barrel Strength
Dark Horse Distillery (Kansas)

Nose: Toffee, honey, caramel, cola, sarsaparilla, cherry, banana, apple, lemon, nutmeg, herbal, roasted filberts, tree bark.
Palate: Sugar cane, honey, caramel, creamy, buttery, nougat, empire red apple, ginger, green pepper, spicy, walnuts, grain, oak.
Finish: Spice, pepper, zesty, light grassy, grain, hint of maple syrup, wood, very smooth.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Dark Horse Reunion Barrel Strength Rye



John Jacob Rye



John Jacob
Fremont Mischief Distillery (Washington)

Nose: Light citrus, sugar cane, dried fruits, nuts, dried grain, flour, mint, white pepper.
Palate: Honey, buttery, vanilla, caramel, toffee, light maple syrup, cherry, prune, dried fruit, pistachio, clove, spice.
Finish: Creamy, spicy, tobacco, slightly smoky, smooth, delicate.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Elk Rider
Heritage Distilling Co. (Washington)

Nose: Honey, brown sugar, molasses, banana, coconut, poppy seeds, nuts, grain.
Palate: Cherry, apricot, dried fruit, molasses, mint, spice, clove, black pepper, black tea, bark, mineral, zesty, assertive.
Finish: Zesty, mint, light pepper, nice, smooth, gentle.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Elk Rider Rye



Redemption Barrel Proof Rye



Redemption
Barrel Proof
Bardstown Barrel Selections (Kentucky)

Nose: Vanilla, toffee, honey, molasses, cola, cherry, caramel, fresh baked cookies, cotton candy, egg nog, wheat, green apple, herbal, fresh.
Palate: Molasses, brittle, butterscotch, nougat, maple syrup, cherry, pine resin, black olive, cinnamon, clove, spicy, toasted oak.
Finish: Zesty spice, peppery, black pepper, dried mango, buttery, cinnamon, cloves, grain, oak, rich.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Ceran St. Vrain's Taos Lightning
KGB Spirits (New Mexico)

Nose: Honey nectar, honey, brown sugar, caramel, cherry, dark fruit, prune, light strawberry, orange, ginger, cereal, grain, oak, mahogany, tobacco, leather.
Palate: Honey, molasses, vanilla, toffee, plums, orange, citrus, apple, ginger, peppery, spice, tobacco, resin, woody, oaky.
Finish: Buttery, spice, pepper, umami, savory, smooth.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Ceran St. Vrain's Taos Lightning Rye



Five Fathers Pure Malt Rye



Five Fathers
Pure Rye Malt Whiskey
The Old Pogue Distillery (Kentucky)

Nose: Dried fruit, banana, orange liqueur, molasses, nutmeg, clove. nutty, rye bread, flour, maple, oak, woody.
Palate: Plums, dark fruit, dried fruit, honey, vanilla, raw sugar, chocolate, cocoa, black licorice, nutmeg, roasted nuts, nutty, clove, allspice, peppery, hot pepper, spicy.
Finish: Spicy, pepper, toffee, buttery, grain, citrus, tobacco, zesty.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Wigle Small Cask Series
Bottle Proof Organic
Wigle Whiskey (Pennsyvania)

Nose: Sweet apple, caramel, toffee, molasses, Vienna fingers, pound cake, nutty, white pepper, dried tobacco, leather, woody.
Palate: Sugar cane, molasses, chocolate, cinnamon, Grand Marnier, roasted nuts, slightly nutty, malty, grain, oak, cigar tobacco.
Finish: Cherry, spicy, tobacco, smooth, mild.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Wigle Small Cask Series Bottle Proof Organic Rye



Stein Distillery Straight Rye



Stein Distillery
Straight Rye
(Oregon)

Nose: Citrus, ripe orange, apricot, nutty, grain, honey, sugar cane, fermented corn, oak, mint.
Palate: Creamy, buttery, brown sugar, nougat, orange, ginger, mint, spicy, herb, roasted nuts, toast, woody, oak, leather.
Finish: Honey, grain, slight oak, light, smooth.

Gold Medal
Gold medal





Ole George
Grand Traverse Distillery (Michigan)

Nose: Cherry, berries, apricot, honey, sugar cane, citrus, grape, ginger, basil, herbs, almond, fresh cut grass, cedar.
Palate: Toffee, caramel, nougat, cream, vanilla, honey, dried fruit, cocoa, mint, spice, pepper, caraway, almond, walnut, oak, leather.
Finish: Creamy, buttery, honey, citrus, toasted.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Ole George Rye



Copper Fox Rye



Copper Fox
Copper Fox Distillery (Virginia)

Nose: Vanilla, toffee, brown sugar, butterscotch, buttery, sweet red bell pepper, mint, patchouli, nutty, leather, oak, smoke.
Palate: Plums, banana, vanilla, toasted rye, pepper, clove, ginger, coffee, nuts, hint of peat, burnt wood, charred oak, woody.
Finish: Dried fruit, toast, nutty, tobacco, tanned leather, subtle, elegant.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Gunpowder
New England Distilling (Maine)

Nose: Brown sugar, cinnamon, floral, basil, mint, clove, licorice, leather, smoky.
Palate: Dried fruit, vanilla, butterscotch, roasted nuts, walnut oil, walnut, clove, green apple, citrus, dried tea leaves, musk, oak, wood, smoke, very smooth.
Finish: Dried cherries, tea, creamy, flour, toast, nutty, pepper, mild spice, nice, smooth, exciting.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Gunpowder Rye

 

 

 

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Comments or questions welcome, please e-mail to: editor@thefiftybest.com

 

 

Comments and Suggestions:

 
Mon. October 13, 2014 10:05 PM - by: greg
You didn't try Bulleit Rye (my favorite for a relatively bargain price and widely available), nor Whistle Pig (arguably the best rye currently available). Bummer.
 
 
Sat. October 11, 2014 6:18 AM - by: John J. Kudlik
I have an old, square case-type bottle, still corked and sealed, with only a little evaporation. The label reads "1 pint and 8 oz. 45% 1866 - Monongahela Whiskey - Blended New York, James M. Bell Co." The is also a label on the side that reads: "Union Club Cleveland, Ohio Inventoried under Act of Congress Oct. 3, 1917" Clearly this is an OLD Monongahela rye - but what would you say I have here? A Monongahela whiskey MADE in 1866, or an old Monongahela whiskey CALLED 1866
 
 
Sat. October 4, 2014 12:58 PM - by: Gary Carl
Looking for old vintages of rye whiskey
 
 


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