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Review: Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey

Two months ago I did a simultaneous review with two other bloggers, Steve Ury and Tim Read. Steve’s (or Sku as he goes by) website is Recent Eats and Tim’s is Scotch and Ice Cream. We had a little fun with the collaboration review of Rebel Yell and thought it might be time to do another. So here we are.

The subject of this review is Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey. Recently it surfaced that Wild Turkey was putting out Wild Turkey 81 Rye Whiskey. This lead some enthusiasts to conclude that the 101 Rye was being discontinued after certain control state product listings showed the 81 Rye hitting the shelves and the 101 leaving them. Chuck Cowdery posted a good bit of information on this subject. Apparently 101 Rye will not be discontinued, but like Rittenhouse and others before, it may be tough to find on store shelves for a while.

The Rye whiskey boom is well into it’s second year as far as I’m concerned. As folks learn to appreciate more flavorful whiskey, I believe rye will continue to grow as a category, and this is great for whiskey lovers. However, whiskey takes time to make properly. Predicting what will be in high demand 4+ years in the future is a difficult proposition. Focusing on 81 right now gives Wild Turkey a little breathing room. The fact that it’s 20 proof lower than the 101 will certainly help Wild Turkey meet demand while the company ramps up stock.

If Wild Turkey 101 Rye is a whiskey you love and keep on hand, then I’d recommend stocking up at least for the short term. If you are unsure or haven’t had it yet, then it’s perfect timing to read my thoughts.

Wild Turkey 101 Rye Whiskey, 50.5% abv (101 Proof), $22-25

Color: Medium Amber

Nose: The nose is sharp and bracing. Honeyed with a crisp rye grain quality, mint, sour apple, sandalwood, menthol, flint, and sun dried oak. There is also some rustic corn mash in there as well.

Palate: Much like the nose – the sip is sharp with a crisp, dry quality to it. Rye and mint are present all throughout the sip with apple and honey anchoring things to a degree. It’s all about the spicy rye with increasing warmth leading to the finish.

Finish: The finish is long, warm, and spicy. We get a bit more of a cinnamon and wood spice quality along with some oak grip.

Overall: Wild Turkey’s lesser expensive products, like the 101 Bourbon and this Rye, are some of the best American Whiskeys available in their respective price ranges. WT 101 Rye is loaded with sharp rye grain character, spice, and warmth, without a lot of the “green” notes that I associate with the very high rye, former LDI-based ryes (Bulleit, Templeton, Redemption, etc.). For a well stocked bar I’d recommend this one be in your arsenal. The versatility for neat sipping and a fantastic Manhattan are pretty tough to beat at this price.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.7 (Very Good/Excellent)

Shades of Gray

Earlier this week I read a post from David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits, an excellent California based retail store. I’ve frequently mentioned K&L and David because they are an example to what I feel wine and spirits stores need to aspire towards. They educate buyers regardless of the price or producer, bring unique products to attention, and really just make sure K&L is a resource for it’s loyal customers.

The premise of David’s post was the fact that the spirit and whiskey industry is complicated. We get caught up in this notion of “small batch” and “craft” and really – what is that? I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with David over various topics. He’s taught me a great deal about a number of artisan producers – their passion for just simply producing great stuff regardless of volume (or perhaps even profit), and also their relentless pursuit of the best raw materials. We’ve also had some interesting disagreements on a number of subjects. However his post last week titled “It’s Complicated” encompasses a lot of my thoughts about the world of whiskey today.

I urge you to read this if you are in any way “black or white” on craft/micro producers vs. the big boys. David discusses his recent visit from a passionate Grand Marnier representative. Apparently dreading the session, David was immediately engulfed by the guys passion upon hearing him speak (watch the video K&L’s blog a few posts down). I got to thinking about that and I believe the same is true for many of the big boys of bourbon and American whiskey.

The world is shades of gray folks. It’s so common for people to approach both with preconceived notions and opinions that can many times be changed if you are open to it.

Last Spring at WhiskyFest 2011 in Chicago I talked to Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Lobby. I think we all may share a feeling that Buffalo Trace is a “big boy”. It was so interesting to hear Kris talk about his desire to finally get BT’s flagship bourbon into all 50 states, and just how small their production really is. It’s clear the passion and care Kris takes in BT’s products. Ask Jim Rutledge of Four Roses where he gets the distillery’s corn and rye. But be prepared to spend 10-15 minutes learning just how critical Jim feels his relationships with the absolute best farmers in the country (or internationally for Rye) are to his finished product. To make assumptions that these guys are using lesser ingredients because they are bigger is very uninformed. To make assumptions they care less simply because they produce tens of thousands of barrels per year is an even bigger mistake.

On the flip side, you have micro distillers like Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox distillery going to the time and expense of floor malting barley at the distillery’s Sperryville, VA location. My numbers may not be exact but I believe there’s less than a half dozen distilleries in Scotland that are floor malting today. Rick knows it costs more, but he doesn’t care – he does it because it makes his product better. Head out to High West in Park City, Utah and talk to David Perkins about the lengths he went through to perfect his new OMG Rye. Having tasted a number of iterations, I know the care and time and energy High West put in to making sure it was EXACTLY the way they wanted. Spend a day with St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and if you aren’t excited about the state of their whiskey program then you are deader than a door nail.

The point is exactly as David Driscoll eloquently stated – It’s Complicated. We screw it all up when we make ourselves choose between the little guys and the big guys. Why in the hell do we do that? Why let romantic notions of the little guy sway our opinions of the bigger companies without facts. Why stay with the “old brand” just because we *think* those little guys can’t possibly be as good because they are not as established.

My suggestion is simple. If you find yourself in only one camp, do some research and try a few products across the aisle and see what you think. At worse you expand your whiskey palate. At best you may just find something you’ll love.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

Review: Masterson’s Rye Whiskey

Masterson’s Rye is one of the latest rye whiskeys sourced from Canada. It’s a 100% rye, which is tough as hell to distill. The distiller that makes this juice is said to be the same that produced Whistlepig and Jeffereson’s Rye. The family resemblance among them is very apparent, but each of these whiskeys differ in the flavor delivery department.

Masterson’s is sourced and then bottled by 35 Maple Street, a new spirits company based out of Sonoma, CA. The operation is a division of The Other Guys, a wine company with an ever growing portfolio of wine brands. Started by siblings, Mia and August Sebastiani (of the Sebastiani wine family), 35 Maple Street has plans to produce a gin, and have also put out a small batch bourbon recently (review coming soon).

Masterson’s was named after Bat Masterson, who was an old west lawman. August Sebastiani says he was fascinated by the Wild West and thought the name was fitting for their first whiskey. I suppose the name is meant to conjure up images of the frontier and gun slingers, but that’s all about the marketers. How does it taste?

Masterson’s Rye Whiskey, 45% abv (90 proof), $70

Color: Deep Golden

Nose: Bright and floral rye grain, juniper, crushed green herbs (cilantro, dill, and spearmint), a touch of menthol and then the woody spice notes from clove and nutmeg. A bit of sour apple fruitiness tries to break through late in the nose, but the spice and grain chokes it out. This is not a particularly sweet nose. It’s laden with crisp and clean spices.

Palate: Again – crisp and sharp as a razor blade. Brittle burned caramel provides restrained sweetness, quickly shattered by the onslaught of spices – mint, chili flake, vanilla, anise, and pine. The influence of the barrel adds dryness, accentuating the prickle and heat halfway through the sip. Spicy and beautiful stuff, but a shade one sided and requiring a bit more sweetness to balance things out.

Finish: Long waves of dry, spicy rye grain, some heat, and bitterness.

Overall: Masterson’s rye is an excellent rye whiskey busting with character. It’s bright and well spiced on the nose and palate. However, it falls short of its sibling, Whistlepig, which manages to bring similar layers of spice (albeit restrained slightly), but does so with more balance, sweetness, and depth of flavor. At virtually the same price, my pick would be Whistlepig, but Masterson’s may be more appropriate for you if you like your rye’s spicier, drier, and crisper.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)

Review: Sazerac Rye Whiskey (6 year old)

In the last week I did a review and accompanying video of the 2011 18 year old Sazerac Rye Whiskey. I thought a quick look at its little brother, a 6 year old, might be an interesting comparison.

Sazerac Rye Whiskey (6 year), 45% abv (90 Proof), $30.00

Color: Light Amber/Deep Gold

Nose:  Fruity and fresh with youthful exuberance. Cinnamon candy, sweet mint, vanilla bean, honeysuckle, and clove wrapped around a honeyed apple heart.

Palate: Very much in line with the fragrance on the nose. Crisp orchard fruit, vanilla infused honey, sweet mint and clove. The oak gets the hell out of the way. Wait, is that a bit of fleeting corn leading us to the finish?

Finish: Caramel and honey taming the emerging, warm baking spices. Never too hot though – just dries up cleanly. A bit of toasted wood bitterness as well.

Overall: This is a great example of a well made, classic rye flavor profile. For those that consider rye too hot or strong – this might be a great intro for you. It’s nicely balanced with fruit, sweetness and spice, but not “hot” in the least. It’s also a good price point in my opinion. Admittedly it’s not particularly complex, and tasted even a bit younger than 6 years, but it’s a very good sipping rye.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.6 (Very Good/Excellent)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

I am ashamed to call myself a whiskey geek today. Very ashamed indeed. I say this because I cannot tell a lie – no matter how hard I make myself, I can’t get excited about the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. Honestly I have tried like hell to get into it. To date, I’ve sampled three bottles (different barrel numbers). They’ve been good, don’t get me wrong, but not mind blowing. I still wonder if it will even be worth the effort. Let me explain my thoughts……

For those that don’t remember, Buffalo Trace embarked on one of the most aggressive “projects” in whiskey history earlier this year. That’s not an understatement. You can read more about the experiment here. To summarize, Buffalo Trace has gone right to the barrel making source to isolate the components of the wood that impact the finished whiskey more favorably in the eyes of the general public. You can purchase a bottle, log onto the website, enter your thoughts on the whiskey, and see what components/factors impacted the bourbon you tasted. The goal, simply put, is to figure out what sections of the tree (top or bottom cuts), what char levels, grain type (course to fine grain), and other factors yield the best results when mated with either a rye-based bourbon or a wheated bourbon. To date, Buffalo Trace has released 36 Single Oak Project Bourbons (3 releases of 12), each representing 192 possible combinations of flavor factors.

This is cool stuff right? On the surface I agree – it’s very cool. Buffalo trace is going to lengths no other distillery in the world has gone (to my knowledge) in order to improve consistency, and perhaps find the “holy grail” bourbon.

Here’s the thing – I think they have little or no chance of finding what they seek. Is that based on fact, research, or anything concrete? Nope, not a all. Still, I believe they are looking at this in a one dimensional way, focused on isolation of components. What if it’s a combination of top and bottom tree oak that yields more balance? What if variances in grain type actually help? What if it’s a combination of rye-based bourbons blended together that yield the best finished whiskey? What if my brain explodes as I think of the myriad of options that could yield the best results?

Also, and perhaps more critically, what are Buffalo Trace’s plans to execute on the “perfect” bourbon as per the Single Oak Project ratings? How does a distillery scale in such a way as to isolate top tree sections with tight grain (for example) and still produce an affordable bourbon? Does Buffalo Trace intend to buy their own cooperage to control those costs? Will it end up being a $150 bottle? The folks behind this endeavor are a hell of a lot smarter than me, but these are the things that run through my head, and keep me from jumping up an down with excitement.

Bottom line, I feel this will end up being a fun, cool experiment for the whiskey geeks in all of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we all don’t get our hopes up.

What about you? Share with me what you think about Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project. Perhaps I’m alone in my opinion here.

Review: Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye

The Willett Brand is owned by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, LLC (KBD), a Bardstown, Kentucky Independent Bottler. The company is responsible for a number of well known bourbon and rye whiskeys – Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and of course the Willett label to name a few. In spite of having the word “distillers” in its name, KBD does not currently distill whiskey. Instead, the operation relies on partnerships with established distilleries to produce its whiskeys.

As an aside, KBD has been working for years to get the former Willett distillery up and running (in Bardstown, KY). In a discussion I had this past fall with Drew Kulsveen, the man behind most of the company’s whiskeys, KBD is making significant progress in getting the distillery operational. Kulsveen estimates the distillery will be producing whiskey at some point in 2012. Until that time, Kulsveen takes a hands on approach to selecting barrels for KBD’s many products.

The subject of this review is KBD’s Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye. What we know is this product is made by Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI) in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. For more information on LDI, please check out my reviews on Bulleit Rye, Redemption Rye, Templeton Rye, and a number of the High West whiskeys. LDI is responsible for distilling each of those products.

Willett 3 Year Old Single Barrel Rye Whiskey, 55% abv (110 Proof) $35.00

Color: Medium Amber

Nose:  Razor sharp rye, granulated ginger, pine sap, licorice, and fresh, juicy oak at the fore. Rock candy and vanilla share the stage, but in the background.

Palate: Concentrated, brittle caramel sweetness fades to crisp, dry peppermint, evergreen, and clove at mid-palate. Lots of deep, dark barrel notes anchor the brighter flavors of this whiskey, adding depth and complexity.

Finish: The finish is huge – spiced with rye, clove, and mint as well as bold notes of the oak.

Overall: The hallmark of LDI’s rye whiskey, particularly their 95% rye, is that bracing rye nose and palate, with brittle caramel, juniper, and fresh green notes (evergreen, pine, and herbs). Willett 3 year Single Barrel Rye certainly demonstrates the family resemblance, but is also different from the rest in the way it delivers aroma and flavor. I consider this a good thing because most of the independently bottled LDI juice tastes so very similar. Releasing this at 110 proof was a wise move first and foremost. The result is a deeper sweetness, complexity, barrel/toasted notes. From a textural point of view, the Willett Rye is more viscous as well. I’d go so far as to consider this one of the best young whiskeys (under 4 years old) made. Quite a distinctive pour for $35.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.8 (Superb/Outstanding)