Peerless Kentucky Straight Rye Single Barrel

Barrel #1 (150903109) selected by Healthy Spirits (2019)

MASH BILL – Undisclosed

PROOF – 111.4

AGE – ~3 years 5 months

DISTILLERY – Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co.

PRICE – $108

BUY AGAIN? – Yes, when it hits the 5 or 6-year mark…

Controversially priced for its age when it first showed up as a 2-year offering in 2017, the Peerless Rye has gone on to earn fans nonetheless. It’s a rare, and proud, sweet mash rye offering—meaning each batch is made from a 100% fresh mash of grains, yeast, and water, rather than retaining a portion from a prior mash. The latter, called a sour mash and much more common, is done to achieve consistency of bacteria and flavor from batch to batch. Given a sweet mash process starts each new batch afresh, more care must be taken to control unwanted bacteria, but the distiller also has more control over fine tuning flavors from batch to batch.

In addition to being strictly sweet mash, Peerless is also always non-chill filtered and bottled at barrel proof. Now aged to a standard 3-year minimum, the price still makes me wince. But having enjoyed a 2-year small batch edition at a friend’s home one evening, I was left curious enough to take the plunge and pick up this slightly older store pick single barrel.

Here in brief are some notes, taken about a month after uncorking and a quarter of the way into the bottle:

COLOR – shining copper, like a new penny

NOSE – fresh, floral, grassy, some cinnamon, a nice burst of rye spiciness on a layer of bright and creamy caramel, all a bit like a very nice old-fashioned candy store with creaky wooden floors

TASTE – strong caramel and floral rye right up front, then fresh black pepper and some kind of fruit tree in bloom, ending with a nice tingly pepperiness and a bit of oak

FINISH – those grassy herbal notes, some caramel, an easy lingering peppery tingle

OVERALL – clean and fresh like the arrival of spring

This is good. I am particularly struck by how clean and fresh it tastes. It’s like spotless glass or a crisply focused photograph. It’s like bright sunshine in winter, not glaring but clear. It’s like a fragrant breeze that compels an enlivening inhalation of breath.

This rye shows itself more favorably in the traditional Glencairn than it does the Canadian. I always try a new-to-me rye in both. Ryes generally seem to show themselves well in the Canadian Glencairn, I’ve found. And of course the traditional Glencairn is expressly designed for nosing and tasting. For whatever combination of reasons, this rye whiskey shows a richness in the traditional Glencairn that comes off a bit thinner and waterier in the Canadian. Interesting. I wonder if it is the more delicate, pristine nature of the Peerless that benefits from the tighter confines of the traditional Glencairn—as opposed to the full throttle power of an Old Potrero or Willett rye, for example, both of which seem to make good use of the extra elbowroom provided by the Canadian Glencairn.

Then I tried it in a simple brandy glass. It was even more concentrated than in the traditional Glencairn. The caramel aspects in particular really stepped forward out of the brandy glass’ round bowl. I stayed with this glass for the rest of the tasting.

In any case, this Peerless rye is indeed high quality stuff. Floral does not tend to be my favorite area of rye flavor tendencies. And, whereas herbal notes in bourbon don’t appeal to me so much, in rye I do prefer the herbaceous flavors. They strike me as somehow more at home in rye than in bourbon. This Peerless rye achieves a pleasingly balanced combination of floral and herbal qualities, with a consistent caramel undercurrent to ground it. And it’s exceptionally smooth and easygoing for being 111.4 proof.

I don’t have an open bottle of the Old Forester Rye on hand to compare. But I find myself yet again thinking back to that great floral rye, which costs 75% less than this Peerless. Old Forester’s elegant bottom-shelfer has become for me the benchmark of affordable floral ryes. Trying it next to the pricey and rare Colonel E.H. Taylor rye, for example, I couldn’t see a reason to pay the latter’s premium. I’d be very curious how the Old Forester would hold up next to this Peerless. 

It’s a sad fact that price can be such an influence on taste, yea and nay. I like this Peerless rye. It has a clear, clean freshness to it that restrains its floral tendencies from cloying. But I just can’t justify the price for the experience. It’s yet another costly bottle of whiskey that I will enjoy but not purchase again. 

That said, given the very impressive quality of this whiskey, I do look forward to tasting it again when it has a few more years under its belt. The richness achieved at 3+ years is legitimately impressive. Once it reaches 6 years, I imagine it might be a truly phenomenal pour. Of course, by then it might also cost $200! And suddenly it would not taste quite so phenomenal. 

I know many people believe the true arbiter of a whiskey’s worth is a blind tasting. I understand the logic of that philosophy. But ultimately I can’t get onboard with it. The fact is, most of us are paying out of pocket for our whiskey experiences, and most of the time we aren’t blind to what’s been poured into our glass. The average person can’t afford to be plunking down three digits for a bottle of anything, outside of some special occasion. Even I—who have a deep passion for whiskey, and so am willing to invest in it rather than devoting that money to other things (like my retirement!)—even I cannot remove pricing from the experiential equation. Material reality is a reality. A free pour of an expensive whiskey will always taste much better than a price-hiked pour. Weller 12 Year tastes notably better, for example, at $50 a bottle than it does at $300.

Peerless Rye is very worth trying. Go for it at a bar before you buy a bottle. And if you like floral ryes but are on a budget, go for the Old Forester Rye. It’s ridiculously affordable for the quality it offers. But if you have the cash, Peerless won’t disappoint. It’s very well made and I am certainly going to enjoy making my way through the rest of this bottle.


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