Nine Ryes, a Wheater, and a “Barely Legal” Bourbon walk into a bar…

I recently had the great pleasure of sharing an epic rye flight at a friend’s place. Three of us gathered and each brought a handful of bottles—nine ryes total, with one wheater and a “barely legal” bourbon thrown into the mix for good measure.

Old Potrero and Willett were well represented:

Alongside them we set out a random handful of other labels:

Proofs ranged from 96 on up to 124.2, and we used that as a basic structural tool for organizing a rough order of events. It was interesting to compare the range within two specific brands—Willett and Old Potrero—but also to notice differences and similarities across all eleven bottles. Very broadly speaking, they each seemed to lean toward one of three flavor areas: Floral, Fruity, and what I can best describe as a Wild Grassy Field.

As this was a social occasion, and I wasn’t seated at my red kitchen table with my notepad and analytical brain at the ready, my observations here are brief and broad, based on memory—like real drinking! Social, shared, no fixed agenda as to where the conversation might go.

But a good whiskey does linger in the memory, and each of these were good. Here, as memory serves, are some impressions:

FLORAL

This flavor area is one I associate most with Old Forester Rye and the Colonel E.H. Taylor Rye, two ryes that together first drew my attention to the grain’s flowery side. They couldn’t be priced more differently and yet they offer a strikingly similar experience, not only in terms of flavor but also quality. I would never pay for the E.H. Taylor again (about $75) given the almost absurd affordability of the Old Forester (about $25).

Though the floral corner of the rye field isn’t my favorite, it can be a pleasingly gentle area to linger in when it’s not too perfumey, as tonight’s floral bottles were not:

Peerless Kentucky Straight Rye (2 years, 108.4 proof) — Much anticipation preceded this, my first encounter with Peerless. Its $100+ price tag in combination with its two short years in the barrel have made it a bit of a controversial new addition to the high-end market. But reviews have been generally quite favorable, if at times reluctantly so. A rare sweet mash rye, the Peerless 2-Year tastes remarkably mature for its youth. It’s clearly been raised with great care. Always bottled at barrel proof and never chill filtered, it’s a superb sipping rye that tastes like relaxation itself. It’s floral without cloying, and doesn’t make too many demands. For the price, I’d actually like something that asks more of me. That said, I’d never turn a glass of this down, and am now curious to try the more recently released 3-year edition.

Michter’s US1 Limited Release Barrel Strength Rye (Barrel #19C467, 112 proof) — As with the Peerless, this was another first experience with a sought-after bottle. We were freshly uncorking it, and its earthy bouquet hit me immediately. Autumn flowers as opposed to spring. Dustier and spicier rather than fresh cut. I appreciate the clean bursts of life that characterize spring, but autumn is a favorite season for me with its mix of sweet and savory, bright and dark, living and dying. This Michter’s hits those autumn notes perfectly well, with a remarkable smoothness given its proof. (Mind you, my tolerance for high proofs is high.) I only put it under the “Floral” category by a whiff. It’s certainly got a foot in the earthy wild grasses and some toes in the fruit bowl. But autumnal-floral it is. Altogether it’s not so striking that I’ll be breaking a sweat to track future bottles down, given the average price hovers up near $100. But like the Peerless, I’d never turn down a glass.

FRUITY

Here we have a rye and a wheater, united only by their emphasis on fruit flavors. In addition to their main grain, they are also quite different in other significant respects. The Rubicon Rye comes from Dry Diggings Distillery, a tiny family operation in El Dorado Hills, CA, with very limited distribution by choice. It’s also younger by about a decade than the Old Fitz, itself a classic Kentucky label with a long history, national distribution and a sky-high profile.

Rubicon Rye (96 proof) — At about $70 a bottle this youngster isn’t cheap. I’d prefer it at $50. But I do find it weirdly good. It’s very fruity, the rich cherry red color following through onto the pallet and into the finish with a variety of cherries—fresh, cooked, dark, bright. The proof is easygoing and keeps things approachably warm. The finish ends with a soft burst of coarsely ground black pepper and rye spice. The Rubicon is memorable without demanding attention. I can easily move on from it and not think about it too much. But then when I return I’m always delighted to be back!

Old Fitzgerald BiB 13 Year (100 proof) — This was my introduction to Old Fitz. The owner of a liquor store I frequent actually persuaded me not to buy a bottle of the 9-year edition when I came in eyeing it. “You’re paying for the fancy bottle,” he said. “The bourbon is okay.” He recommended Redemption Wheated instead, and this turned out to be a stellar recommendation. Still, I was keen to finally have a sample of this old classic label. It indeed delivers a super solid, unremarkable wheat-bourbon experience: caramel, stone fruits, soft vanilla, no surprises. It carries its 13 years and 100 proof very well, neither too oaky nor too prickly. With or without the decanter-style packaging, the price is a bit much for the experience. So I’ll add it to the long list of good bourbons to buy at a bar, rather than buying a bottle. (That’s a great list by the way!)

THE WILD GRASSY FIELD

When it comes to rye, I’m a big fan of the wild grassy field. It was the Willett 3-year small batch rye that first threw me into this patch of flavor. Other grassy ryes—from Tom’s Foolery and Journeyman, for example—have also kept me coming back to linger on their lively, sometimes weird, always thought-provoking complexities.

Kentucky Owl Rye (Batch #1, 11 years, 110 proof) — The first of Kentucky Owl’s now three rye releases, at $150 this one is the “cheapest.” When it was released back in 2017, I was nearing the end of my brief buy-to-sell phase. I bought two bottles at msrp, intending to sell one for double so as to enjoy the other for free. I did enjoy it. But I never sold the second. Not because I loved it so much. But rather I no longer wanted to contribute to stoking the secondary-price wildfire. And so it had been nearly two years since I’d had a taste of this batch, and I was glad to try it again… It’s quite good, with a smooth and comfortable earthiness. The field of dark, grassy, rye-spiced flavors are dense and thick here. Kentucky Owl sourced and blended their rye exceptionally well, then sadly over-priced it. It’s pretty clear the relatively young company’s aim has been to leap immediately onto the elite top shelf. With its finely yet elaborately detailed old-timey label emphasizing age and history, the brand carries an air of the rich kid who bought their way in. Even their new “standard” national release, Kentucky Owl Confiscated Bourbon, goes for $100 at best. This Rye Batch #1 is the only Kentucky Owl product I’ve tried. If the others are like it, these folks indeed know what they’re doing with barrel selection and blending. But I can’t say I’ll be contributing much to their bottom line.

Old Potrero (Chardonnay Cask Finished SiB, 110.6 proof / 18th Century Style Whiskey, 102.4 proof / Straight Rye, 97 proof) — I first tried the Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey back in 2016 and found it overwhelmingly, off-puttingly perfumey. Aged a short 2 years 6 months in toasted, not charred, barrels, it’s very grainy and light with a grassiness that bursts a bit into floral territory. Three years on and many more ryes having influenced my tastes, I can now appreciate the vibrant details this bottle has to offer. But as I’ve also come to love the much more darkly complex Old Potrero single barrel ryes, that’s where I’m going to put my money. The standard rye is also good. Decently aged for 4 years 6 months in charred oak barrels, it offers spritely baking spices among its fragrant field of hay and rye and other long reedy grasses. The single barrels then amp all that up, both in age (often about 6 years) and proof (anywhere from 110 to 125). The particular single barrel we sampled tonight was finished in a chardonnay oak barrel, which couldn’t be better suited to Old Potrero’s 100% rye mash. There is something very special and particular going on in Old Potrero, a roughness that conjures the rambunctious old Barbary Coast of San Francisco lore. It’s a conversation starter with the kind of strong personality that isn’t for everyone. But for me it’s lively, entertaining, provocative, and always on my shelf.

Willett (5 year SiB Bourbon Barrel #4747, 124.2 proof / 4 year SmB Rye, 113.8 proof / 4 year SmB Rye, 109.8 proof ) — Okay. Willett. The rye that made me love rye. I’ve compared this 4-year Rye 113.8 proof and 5-year Bourbon 124.2 proof to one another already. I’d not had the 4-year 109.8 proof before, though I’ve enjoyed other batches—a 107.2 and 126 proof among them. The 4 degree proof difference between the 109.8 and 113.8 was noticeable, with the 109.8 feeling more laidback and the 113.8 brighter and poppier. The Willett bourbon has a “barely legal” mash bill, meaning the mash bill has just over the minimum percentage of corn to qualify as bourbon. This leaves it tasting very like the Willett ryes, themselves reportedly likewise made from a “barely legal” rye percentage. Not as rough as Old Potrero, but similarly wild, Willett ryes and bourbons abound with other flavors like chocolate, prune, apricot, tangy caramels, and bright spices like cinnamon and cardamom. The higher-priced, slightly older Willett single barrel ryes and bourbons don’t justify the extra cost for me, since the standard 4-year small batch release is itself so consistently tasty and surprising. There will always be an open bottle of Willett 4-year on my shelf.

CHEERS!

A whiskey flight is always best when shared, and this was no exception. Together we lined up quite an itinerary, offering opportunities for close comparisons and sharp contrasts. Sprinkling our rye flight with a dash of wheat and corn was useful toward highlighting both what is particular to rye and what straddles the American whiskey landscape. I’m left with good memories and new ideas for future wide-roaming flights.

Cheers!

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