Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye

VERY OLDE ST. NICK SUMMER RYE
2019 bottling

MASH BILL – Undisclosed sourced rye mash bill

PROOF – 118.9

AGE – NAS (4+ years)

DISTILLERY – Bottled by Olde St. Nick Distillery, Bardstown, KY. Likely also sourced in Bardstown. And a place called Preservation Distillery is involved. More on this below…

PRICE – $217

BUY AGAIN? – No, for a few reasons…

The Olde St. Nick brand is shrouded in mystery. Known only to the most diehard whiskey enthusiasts as a bottler of well-aged whiskeys sourced from the likes of the fabled Stitzel-Weller Distillery, Heaven Hill, and Willett, and sold almost exclusively in Japan, in the last couple years Olde St. Nick has made a shift to offering their tiny batches in Kentucky. Starting this past Fall, they now also distribute to California, Texas, Illinois and Indiana.

Piecing together even that nutshell took some sleuthing. Who they are, and who they have been, took more digging. I hardly consider what I’ve pulled together here to be definitive, or even exhaustive. But it’s thorough enough to provide a frame for this very curious bottle of rye. Here is what I found:

Olde St. Nick Distillery has its own website, with three brief pages amounting to a perfunctory advertisement. It has the appearance of websites from a decade ago, though a note at the bottom of the home page refers to the year 2017. That’s thirty years after 1987, the year the home page indicates Olde St. Nick was established. (Their bottle’s label, however, indicates they started in 1986.) Overall the website is a toe-dip into digital marketing, and might help to explain why the reclusive brand has remained so little-known outside the depths of the international whiskey-hunting rabbit hole.

A related operation, Preservation Distillery, has a website that looks more contemporary than Olde St. Nick’s, more visually elaborate, yet without revealing substantially more information. The website is copyrighted 2016. Their social media commenced posting in early 2017, but didn’t kick in with earnest until early 2018. A March 2018 Facebook post confirms their establishment:

Preservation names Olde St. Nick as one of three brands it oversees, alongside Wattie Boone & Sons and Cowboy Little Barrel. This tells us Preservation Distillery is in some manner responsible for Olde St. Nick, though not precisely how. The scant information provided merely echoes the Olde St. Nick website, itself ending with this statement:

Looking forward to firing up our new pot still and bringing the Very Olde St Nick Rare Bourbon, Rye, and Whiskey products to you very soon. 

The Preservation Distillery website, again using language paraphrased on the Olde St. Nick website, appears to elaborate on this plan:

Pot-distilling in the smallest 1-3 barrel batches, Preservation Distillery and Farm is a hidden treasure in Bardstown, Kentucky, the official ‘Bourbon Capital of the World’. Something our family dreamed for over half a century, Preservation is the region’s first and only 100% pot-distilled producer in Nelson County, Bourbon’s equivalent to the Napa Valley.

In addition to shared marketing copy, both operations share the same 426 Sutherland Road address in Bardstown, KY. All this suggests Olde St. Nick, having long ago built its reputation on extremely well-aged sourced whiskeys, fairly recently acted on plans to start distilling their own whiskey, and Preservation Distillery became their means toward doing so.

But what are they doing? Specifically, what are they making?

The very first post on the Preservation Distillery Instagram account is dated January 15, 2018, and shows a barrel of “pot distilled bourbon whiskey” with a fill date of “17-L-27,” or December 27, 2017:

This suggests Preservation’s own distillate is now nearing the two year mark. That means anything currently coming from them without an age statement—like this 2019 Summer Rye—is sourced elsewhere, since any American whiskey under 4 years old must have the age stated on its label.

Okay. So that all adds up to just a bit about what Olde St. Nick is doing, when, where, and for how long. Here’s a bit more on who is doing it:

The founder and owner of Preservation Distillery is Marci Palatella. She is also president of International Beverage Holdings LTD (or she was; the relevant websites do not clarify), an international brand importer and developer with head offices in California. Palatella herself posts on social media about Olde St. Nick products. If you click through to the original September 7, 2019, Facebook post embedded below, for example, you can scroll the commentary chain where Palatella maintains the secrecy of her company’s sourcing while also confirming that this 2019 bottle of Summer Rye is indeed a 4+ year sourced rye.

There Palatella reiterates some of the hints she’s been posting online since at least as far back as 2014.

Palatella also received press attention this past March 2019, when she found herself among those arrested and charged for involvement in the university admissions scandals. It would be mere psychological speculation to draw a direct connection between her impulse to engage in that deceit and her company’s tight-lipped production history. However, the question of whether one wishes to support a company run by a person who chose to launder money for bribes is worth considering. Personally, had I known before picking up this bottle I would have passed on it. I don’t wish to support privileged people who cheat. I no longer buy Bulleit, for example, since founder Tom Bulleit’s daughter, Hollis B. Worth, came out about her father having sexually abused her repeatedly when she was a child. Tom Bulleit denied her accusation. Diageo, the company that makes Bulleit whiskeys, pulled Tom Bulleit back from his brand advocacy role for a time, but did not fire him or concede to Hollis Bulleit’s claims.

As for the ethics of sourcing whiskeys, many seemingly perfectly honest bottlers—Willett Distillery, Bardstown Bourbon Company, New Riff Distillery—have sourced whiskeys, and, out of contractual obligation, they often have not revealed their sources. So long as a bottler is honest about it to the extent they are legally able, and doesn’t spin their label such that it appears to claim they are doing the distilling, then if the outcome is a tasty product that customers agree is worth the given price tag, nobody really complains too much.

Transparency is the new wave in whiskey. Having started sourcing and bottling in the mid-1980s, Olde St. Nick may be too old to have thought to jump on that bandwagon in the way craft distilleries that started five and ten years ago have been doing. But I believe it would help Olde St. Nick to jump on that bandwagon at this point—the dawn of their own distilling, and so also the possible deemphasis on those extremely coveted well-aged barrels they were once able to source from the likes of Julian Van Winkle and Willett’s Even Kulsveen.

And so, Olde St. Nick has now officially made its way out to California, one of four states (CA, TX, IL, IN) the brand has opened up to distribution. This 2019 Summer Rye is not among the older bottles of yore, but a rather new non-age-stated offering of something just over 4 years old. Given Olde St. Nick hasn’t been shy to state ages in the past, I take it their recent non-aged-stated bottlings are meant to help establish their transition from bottlers of exclusively other people’s old stuff to also bottling new stuff—soon to include their own.

Why are all these background details relevant to this tasting? Because the bottle goes for $200 and is only 4 years old and sourced. Some folks believe price should not influence taste. But in reality, one must admit it does. How can it not? There can be no exact formula, of course. But a whiskey’s basic stats become increasingly vital to whiskey fans the higher its price climbs. As counter-examples, here are a few other bottles priced in the vicinity of $200 that I’ve tried, which come with much more impressive stats of one sort or another to justify their cost:

——☟——

31n50 Bourbon from Dry Diggings Distillery. Sourced from MGP in Indiana. Aged 10 years 6 months at Dry Diggings. Only 12 barrels exist total, each yielding around 100 or fewer bottles, and bottled as unfiltered single barrels at cask strengths near 145-proof.

Booker’s 30th Anniversary distilled and bottled by Jim Beam Distillery. A 2018 limited edition release, featuring a blend of 9-year and 16-year bourbons, bottled at 125.8 proof. Comes in a commemorative box made from repurposed Jim Beam warehouse flooring planks.

Four Roses 2016 Elliott’s Select from Four Roses Distillery. A limited edition, barrel proof, single barrel release featuring 14-year-old bourbon bottled unfiltered at 113.4 proof.

Hochstadter’s Family Reserve bottled by The Hochstadter Company, a.k.a. The Cooper Spirits Company. A 16-year, 100% rye sourced from Canada’s Alberta Distillery. Bottled unfiltered at 123.8 proof.

William Larue Weller, the 2016 edition of this annual release bottled by Buffalo Trace Distillery. This edition was aged 12 years 7 months and bottled at 135.4 proof. The msrp is actually closer to $100. But this brand regularly sells for even $500 or more. I “lucked out” at $200.

——☝︎——

In each of these examples, the age is significant. Or it’s also a single barrel. Or it’s a one-time-only release. Some are sourced and some made entirely in-house. All are left at their natural cask strength. Such details help set a bottle apart. Whereas there are innumerable ryes on the market aged around 4 years, even some bottled at cask strength. The standard Willett Family Estate Bottled Small Batch Rye comes immediately to mind—always 4 years old, always released at cask strength, and generally priced around $55. Given Olde St. Nick’s past relations with Willett, it’s within the realm of possibility that their 2019 Summer Rye is in fact a barrel or blend of Willett. If so, the only difference would be the label design. That is not a $145 difference.

But, setting both larger politics and whiskey-fan quibbles aside for the moment (they’ll be back), here are some tasting notes from the uncorking:

COLOR – a soft copper-orange

NOSE – restrained butterscotch, dry straw and hay, old-fashioned caramel hard candy, dusty floral rye, candied dried citrus fruits and red berries, some cherry pie filling and crust, some rich boozy cream

TASTE – butterscotch and caramel up front, moving quickly into the candied fruits, then on to a drying spiciness, with oak and some dry roasted peanut and almond shell

FINISH – warm in the throat with a cool mint center at the back, some of the dry roasted nutshell, the oak, and a tingly pepperiness

OVERALL – teasingly restrained, dense flavors, peppery and dry

This is simply not a $200 whiskey. I know, is any whiskey really a $200 whiskey? But occasionally a high-priced whiskey does offer a tasting experience exceptional enough to ease the bite of its cost. This is not one of them. 

It’s certainly not bad. The nose in particular has a lot to offer, even if it doesn’t offer it up readily despite having the high proof to support it. The taste then is far less complex, opening with a splash of the juicier flavors carried over from the nose before immediately rolling over into the dust and pepper, settling into the drying, floral herbaceousness of the rye and barrel wood. The finish quickly follows in this same vein—dry, herbal, peppery.

Tasted in the Canadian Glencairn, the caramels, butterscotch, and cream aspects are more prominent in the nose, as if they were coating the candied dried fruits and served on a small bed of fragrant straw. It’s actually a quite lovely and delicate nose, balancing the softness of the sweets with the crispness of the herbs, grasses, nut shells and wood. The taste then doesn’t make the same effort, whether in the Canadian or regular Glencairn. Its quick-dry action conjures various light brown nutshells and roughly sanded wood surfaces, and I can taste only faint remnants of the nut-meat and grasses that have been shelled and plucked away. The finish fades fairly quickly in the end, seemingly eager to move on, leaving only its lingering heat and a few scattered nutshells.

This is an oddity—at once thin and rich, young and old, complex and simple. It’s clearly made of quality ingredients. I could nose it forever. The nose resists giving up its juicy aromatic riches just enough to keep me coming back to draw them out, yet isn’t so restrained as to not reward patience. But after the nose the rest tumbles across so easily, but so dryly, as if to clearly distinguish its ultimate reality from its initial invitation.

With its obscure, equivocal history going back thirty years, its high price tag and notable youth, Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye is an easy target for complaint. I can only imagine the brand’s legendary single barrels of old Stitzel-Weller bourbons, aged to their teens and twenties, were a truly decadent delight in the way current well-aged Pappy Van Winkle or George T. Stagg can be. But this is an adolescent-aged rye, and yet already a woody, dry old man before his time—like that kid in high school or college who wore wooly grey and moss-green cardigans, maybe smoked an old-fashioned pipe (or just really seemed like he should), and was given to quoting Byron and Dante and Shakespeare. Born an old fellow but still not mature in years. You can’t fake your age.

A disappointment.

But then I go back to that nose. Even sniffing the now empty Glencairns, this rye’s best attributes still waft forward—the caramels and creams, the sweet grasses and the candied dried fruits still juicy amidst their crisp sugars.

So I poured another splash…

Yes, it’s that nose! Genuinely enticing. It’s beginning to carry itself further into the taste now. Then comes that peppery dry gust at the finish, sweeping in a scattering of empty nutshells.

With such a mix of flavors tucked away inside it, I can’t help but guess at where the distillate was sourced. It’s got the peanut and herbaceousness of Willett bourbon, the nutty caramels of Heaven Hill, the florals of Barton 1792. All of these distilleries are also based in Bardstown, KY.

It’s an annoying mystery. For the price, I think we deserve to know more about what it is we’re drinking. If I’d paid $200+ for a well aged bottle of MGP or Stitzel-Weller or the like, I’d still be curious but wouldn’t mind as much missing a few details. But an adolescent whiskey is not worth much mystery, especially at such a price.

Okay. Itch $cratched. I can’t recommend anyone do the $ame. Fingers crossed this airs out exceptionally well and eventually brings me around.

As I’m wrapping this up, I’m now sipping the rye in a Norlan Rauk tumbler. Still that good nose. The taste is getting even more like the nose now. The finish is sticking to its drying pattern. So this rye indeed needs a lot of air to open up in the glass…

I’m going to wait a week and check back in…

ONE WEEK LATER:

NOSE – sweet spicy rye, dusty and sweet tannic oak, bright caramel, nicely fragrant dried pine needles

TASTE – tangy and peppery up front, then the caramels, ending with a billowing of dusty oak that settles into a rich earthy autumn mulch that’s both dry and sweet

FINISH – the sweet and rich earthy flavors pass on quickly, leaving mostly sweet splintery oak tannins and a small, softly glowing warmth at the back of the throat

OVERALL – better than a week ago though still not $200 better

I tried it this time in both the Rauk and Glencairn.

The nose is more immediately forthcoming in the Rauk than in the Glencairn, from which I have to pull at it more before it starts to rise out of the glass. But when it does, the same notes present themselves as in the Rauk. It’s a lovely, rustic autumnal nose. Having grown up in a forested area of northern California, where all four seasons show themselves distinctly, I really do appreciate the particular autumnal qualities of this nose. It’s familiar for a rye, without being typical—complex like a forest in autumn with its rich yet relaxed mix of late bloom and early decay.

The taste is now in less of a rush to move through its stages than it was last week. Or else I’m now better able to keep up, being past my various initial reactions. Still it front loads what juicy sweets it briefly has to offer, before moving on to the main event—a drying potpourri of earthy, oaky autumnal flavors, misted from the rain evaporating in the warm sun.

The finish is then surprisingly uneventful given what complexity there is in the taste and nose. Though overall I’m appreciating this rye more now than last week, it still has yet to earn its audacious price tag. 

Given my (literally) invested interest in exploring the American whiskey landscape, in that respect I’m glad for the sum total experience of coming to have, to uncork, and to taste this rye. Considering its particularities—both what’s inside the bottle and how this brand came to arrive on California shelves—I know I’ll continue to follow this bottle’s progress with curiosity. 

But my politics alone mean I won’t be giving future Olde St. Nick releases of any kind a shot, since I really do not wish to support businesses run by confirmed scammers like Palatella. The 2019 university admissions scandal was a pathetic confirmation of what privileged folks are willing to do to work the systems they already benefit from most. That too makes this a curious addition to my home whiskey shelf. It will naturally feature in the backstory I convey whenever I share this bottle with friends. 

For this reason, Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye embodies in a particular way the notion that a whiskey is not only what’s inside the bottle, but also the story behind it. Add to that who one shares it with, when, and for what occasion. I enjoy these aspects of the whiskey drinking experience. I do also enjoy the fun of blind tastings. It’s quite interesting to reduce a whiskey to its nose, taste, finish, and nothing else, to see how one takes to it without a label, a backstory, or any other possible influence. 

But the fact is, most of the time one isn’t drinking whiskey in a blind tasting. Most of the time the bottle is out in the open, a centerpiece on the table around which friends have gathered. The whiskey and its stories become a gathering point for us to share our own stories.

So, unless you’re perversely curious, I personally don’t believe you need to worry about making the 2019 Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye a stop on your whiskey journey. But really that’s up to you. And if you do, and you have thoughts about it you’d care to share, I’d love to read them in the commentary section below.

Cheers!

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