SONOMA DISTILLING CO. SINGLE BARREL RESERVE RYE
store-pick from Bourbon County, San Francisco (2019)
MASH BILL – 80% rye, 20% malted rye, all non-GMO grains
PROOF – 116
AGE – NAS (~3+ years)
DISTILLERY – Sonoma Distilling Co.
PRICE – $54
I can’t remember where or when I met actor and whiskey aficionado Michael Barrett Austin. It may have been when I was in the audience at a performance of his with Just Theater, in which case I “met” him on stage and he likely had no idea we’d met. It could have been when he auditioned for some production I was directing. It could have been at intermission at some play.
But I do remember when we met under our shared whiskey umbrella. In 2016 I sold Michael an old bottling of Weller Antique 107, a store pick aged 9 years. We’ve both been working regularly in the San Francisco Bay Area theater community for years. But it has been in the local whiskey community that we’ve gotten to know one another. We often share our hunting lists with each other, helping one another obtain sought after bottles. Michael has invited me into his home several times now for wide ranging whiskey tastings. Michael has a great nose and palate for whiskey and I always learn something from how our tastes converge and diverge. He’s rather modest about his abilities, and yet in a blind tasting he was able to identify with 100% accuracy a line up of several Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2 bourbons.
And so I asked Michael if he’d like to do a palate comparison with me on a bottle of Sonoma Distilling Co. whiskey we’d both picked up from a mutual haunt, Bourbon County, a modest convenience store on Clement and 23rd in San Francisco’s Richmond District. The owner, Edmond Kubein, has great tastes in bourbon and often does store picks—his 2019 Weller Special Reserve is a local cult fave, and his 2019 Eagle Rare brought me back around to Eagle Rare. I interviewed Edmond and if you haven’t read that interview I recommend doing so. He is a true San Franciscan, with a keen sense for bourbon.
So one night in COVID-19 quarantine, separated by the bay between San Francisco and Berkeley but united by the ol’ interwebs, we set ourselves up a tasting. We’d quaran-tasted this same whiskey before, uncorking our bottles one night alongside some others. Now the bottles had been taking air for about two weeks, and we were each a few pours in. Tasted in traditional Glencairns, here first are our respective notes in brief, followed by our conversation.
MICHAEL – pale honey or maple syrup, with a touch of candied orange peel
MARK – a reddish, rusty copper brown
MICHAEL – lots of rye aromas, bready and seedy as opposed to grassy, cocoa powder, and, after airing out, some raw potato skins and earth
MARK – very forthcoming, lots of rye grasses, molasses, chocolate, crusty walnut bread, and with air it all gradually mellows
MICHAEL – predominant notes of char and ash with a hint of sweet fruit up front, then burnt corn husk and slightly burnt popcorn, rye bread, caraway seeds, all very drying
MARK – caramel coated in herbaceous rye spices with cinnamon, nice bright peppery warmth, both creamy and granular
MICHAEL – a little cinnamon and a lot of pepper, a long lasting peppery spice tingle, then herbal bitters
MARK – lingers long with the herb coated caramel, then the nose’s walnut bread makes a return
MICHAEL – Though I don’t like it more now than at uncorking, I no longer think it’s too young for me, just that it’s not to my personal tastes
MARK – Since uncorking it has grown richer, with the caramel aspects really stepping forward, while still retaining its youthful brightness. I like it.
MICHAEL – No, but I’m glad to have this bottle.
MARK – Not this single barrel. But I’m quite interested to try future, older Sonoma Distilling Co. ryes.
Mark J – So what do you think?
Michael – This doesn’t taste too young to me for its age. For anyone who prefers a rye that’s really rye-spiced in its pure form, then I think this could work for them. But since I’m more of a bourbon fan, and, even with rye, I like a little more sweetness, there’s just not enough fruit and sweetness for me. It’s too much toward the savory notes.
And I forget, how do you take to the Old Potrero Rye?
Usually I like those.
Those are 100% malted rye, so there tends to be more fruit going on there.
Do you get that walnut bread note out of Old Potrero?
No. They’re all quite wildly different, though. The one I have open right now has a lot of cherry in it, dried figs that are still really juicy, the fruit comes on really strong. The color is very red. But 100% malted rye is a big difference from 20%.
Ryes are very slippery to me. Even this Willett, which I just poured again, the nose is so crazy this time. I just sipped it last night and thought it was so wonderful, and tonight it’s just: “What is that?” Ryes to me are a curveball every time, which is something I enjoy. But it’s very different than what I enjoy about bourbon.
Since we opened this Sonoma Rye two weeks ago, your feeling for it has changed. What in the flavors you tasted today drove that change of feeling?
It’s a good question. I think two weeks ago I tasted a lot of wood, and that was not my impression this time. I like heavily aged stuff and don’t mind the taste of old wood. But this tasted young and a little varnishy. That was less my impression this time. And I think maybe I expected one thing and it was another. Sonoma Distilling makes a cherrywood smoked rye, and I was looking for those fruit notes and didn’t get them, so, maybe I was dismissive of it because I expected something else. But this time I think it’s a fine product for the price, and I like the fact that it’s a craft thing and it’s unique. But I don’t need to buy it again.
What would you say is your flavor profile wheelhouse for whiskeys in general? And also your rye flavor profile wheelhouse?
I like trying all kinds of things. But I tend to like whiskey in general to have a lot of depth and nuance, and that’s something I like about rye, that you taste something new every time you get back to it. That’s what I think is the most magical and interesting thing, and makes something worth spending some money on. But if I had to pin it down to things I always like, in bourbon it’s usually more the candy, fruit, sweeter, rich syrupy notes I’m drawn to. And age. Coming from a scotch background, I like something that tastes like it’s been around awhile.
What is that taste, what are those qualities?
Yeah, it’s tough to define. Refined? Gentle, usually? I like something that, even if it’s high proof, it’s pretty easy to sip. And then with rye, Kentucky Owl is maybe my favorite. And I’ve been drinking my 2018 Thomas H. Handy lately. But that one is a curveball for me. I think it’s really good. It’s a higher proof. But I wish it was older. With Kentucky Owl I get a lot of age and complexity out of it, and it’s also subtle. It’s not throwing a bunch of rye in your face at once. It’s well balanced with the sweetness and richness I look for in bourbon.
When we first tasted this Sonoma Rye one of the notes I wrote down was “tastes crafty.” If someone says something tastes “crafty,” what does that mean to you?
To me that means young wood, sawdust, the smell of freshly milled wood. And I still get that in here tonight as we’re talking about it. It’s not something I’m looking for, but it’s not something I hate either. If I were there touring the distillery and they’re nice people, it’s great. It’s a nice memory. But do I need to buy more than one bottle? No. You take a place like Woodinville, who aged their product a lot longer before releasing it, their whiskeys don’t have that “crafty” taste.
I’m curious about the crafty thing. That crusty walnut bread note is something I pick up in a number of craft whiskeys, never mainstream whiskeys. You can get a four-year Jim Beam and it doesn’t have that crafty thing at all. There is something different happening. Maybe it’s organic grains, which a lot of small distilleries use? Maybe their yeast stock is younger?
Less chemical engineering perhaps? When I was at Michter’s something I was really struck by was how much science they put into it. And maybe everyone does and Michter’s just likes to show it off on their tour. But they really spend more time and money doing a few more things to make their product—not to adulterate it but to make sure it meets the standards they want. Whether or not I like their product, I came away impressed and understood why they charge $20 more for a bottle than someone else might.
Do you find when you’re drinking something you know is craft, or local, do you drink it differently? Does that knowledge impact how you evaluate it?
Maybe. That’s a fair question. I think I expect less from craft distilleries. They don’t have an eighty-year-old master distiller who learned the job from their dad, who himself learned it from his dad, and so on. Craft distillers are learning from scratch, they’re at the start of it, so, I give them the benefit of the doubt. And they’re small so I understand why they charge more, because they’re building their business. So I often extend them a lot more grace and sympathy. So, again, with this Sonoma Distilling Company Rye, if I had bought this bottle for a similar price from a distillery with a big name I would be pretty disappointed. I think when I taste a craft whiskey I really enjoy, like Woodinville, I’m very impressed. I may still not like it better than a limited release from a bigger place, but I think Woodinville could get there.
Same question, but with regard to price. If this same bottle cost $20, or $100…? You can get a six-year Russell’s Reserve Rye for $35. Or a six-year Willett single barrel rye for $200.
Price is a big factor, for sure. It’s so funny how the graph moves in terms of cost and enjoyment. I appreciate a deal, where it seems they could charge more than they do and I’d be willing to pay more. And I understand that the top ten bottles of the year for me, which everybody wants and the distillers didn’t make enough, yes, I’ll pay more for these than I might for something else because I know they’re whiskeys I’ll return to and enjoy and appreciate. Like any passion, you get sucked in and you want to try everything and don’t want to miss out. So when you find something you do love, you’re willing to spend money on it. But if you step back and look at it objectively, or when you tell someone who isn’t into whiskey what you spent on a bottle, then you might realize it’s all a little ridiculous. The spending question is something anyone who gets into whiskey broaches, and it’s something that changes over time and depending on your personal financial situation.
What would you say are your biggest out-of-glass influences on your tasting experience—meaning, not the whiskey itself but things like price, whether it’s local, craft… Are there certain factors that have a bigger influence for you in that regard than others?
I think the opinions of people whose taste I trust are a pretty huge influence for me. Reviews, or recommendations from people I know. If I meet someone, or have read something from them and they seem like they know what they’re talking about, that can make me willing to go out and get something I haven’t tried. Even if it’s expensive, they really liked it, so, whether or not it ends up being to my tastes, at least I know that it will be good.
In terms of local, if I were on a vacation somewhere and I heard there was a distillery down the road I’d certainly go check it out. And if it wasn’t terrible I’d probably buy something. I think that sense of terroir is interesting, that idea that this is what people in this area of the world think whiskey should taste like. I really like uniqueness. I value that a lot.
So, Sonoma Distilling Company, I would visit them for sure. I’d be interested in meeting the people behind this. I think the mash bill is really interesting. I’d be curious to ask why they went for 80% rye and 20% malted rye, rather than balancing it with corn or the usual malted barley.
This bottle makes me very curious about the rye they make with the cherrywood smoked grains.
It’s a very small percentage of the grains they use. I am curious how it influences the flavor, though.
I did try one of their cherrywood smoked bourbons a couple years ago. But it was really young, about two years. It didn’t taste like cherries at all. But a sweet smokiness was there. The youth was more overpowering than anything else, though, and I remember thinking I’d wait a few years before trying their stuff again. This bottle we’re drinking tonight is my first return to Sonoma Distilling Co.
That makes me wonder… The cherrywood smoked thing is a fine business move but sounds a bit like a gimmick—something to sell a young product by punching some extra flavors into it. When you go to a new place and they’re selling moonshine with flavors added, yeah, it’s drinkable. It’s not whiskey. But I understand they need to sell something while the real stuff is aging. I wonder if the cherrywood idea was that kind of move. It’s certainly classier than adding artificial flavor to your moonshine!
And our interview ended there. I then poured some Old Potrero Rye, a single barrel picked by K&L in San Francisco. Michael poured more of that Willett, also a locally picked single barrel, selected jointly by Plumpjack Wines & Spirits and Maison Corbeaux. He’d recently uncorked a bottle of Elijah Craig 18 Year, so I uncorked mine as well. We’d happened to pick up the same 2019 single barrel. We agreed it was very cherry and oak, from the nose through the taste to the finish. Though a bit tame at 90 proof, the finish lasted for a surprisingly long while. Given the strong cherry note, tasted blind I’d have guessed the Elijah Craig 18 Year to be a Buffalo Trace mash bill #1 product—Eagle Rare perhaps.
All said and done, even online it was a tasting that did what good tastings should—bring friends together to learn a bit more about one another and the whiskeys they enjoy.