Bottle Kill: 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 all this here.

PRICE – $217


I wrote about this bottle of Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye when I first opened it several months ago. In that post I go into detail about the brand’s origins and background. A key point for me in that regard is the carefully crafted mystery around the bottle in combination with the company owner, Marci Palatella, having been arrested and charged for her involvement in the 2019 university admissions scandals. Details of her case alongside the others have been made public in an affidavit published online by the FBI.

As I note in my first post, to draw a direct connection between Palatella’s impulse to engage in fraud and her company’s carefully obscured production history is merely psychological speculation. For me, though, a consideration of who I support with my business is important. There are political elections to give us a periodic voice in our society. But how we spend our dollar from day to day is ultimately our strongest statement to those in the business of selling. Had I known Palatella’s history before buying this bottle, which I was already on the fence about due to its price and uncertain attributes, I’d not have bought it. I don’t wish to support privileged people who cheat the systems they already benefit from most.

But I didn’t know, so I did buy it, and despite my awareness that I was very likely overpaying for this 4-years-young sourced rye. Curiosity got the better of me—a common trap for us whiskey geeks!

Yet for all my biases, at uncorking and again tasting it a week later, the Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye impressed me. It was without doubt not worth even half its msrp price. But as a tasting experience, it was undeniably good. The nose in particular was utterly entrancing.

Weeks passed. I continued to sip away at it, sometimes pairing it with other ryes like Peerless or Willett. It always held its own. As I neared the bottle’s final quarter, I noticed it had continued to open up in extraordinary ways. I’m confident now it isn’t my politics that still have me concluding that at $200 it remains overpriced by $140. But considering my experiences sipping it over time, and the continued intrigue surrounding it online by whiskey fans, I thought it worth revisiting.

So here we are at this young Very Olde St. Nick’s end. I have the final ounces before me in a Canadian Glencairn, a good glass for fragrant ryes. First the notes in brief:

COLOR – a range, from rich, bright amber oranges to darker russet reds

NOSE – bright cinnamons and baking spices, tart maple, tart caramel, lemon zest, sweet dried herbs, savory bay leaf, brown sugar

TASTE – rich and tangy caramel, peppery rye spice, creamy vanilla, marshmallow, milk chocolate, a dusting of those sweet and savory dried herbs

FINISH – a fine prickling from the proof, the marshmallow, vanilla, caramel, and a darker chocolate

OVERALL – in these final ounces it’s the taste that now entrances most, with the varied flavors quite nicely integrated

This is undeniably unique in its flavor profile. I can’t quite compare it to other ryes. Willett and WhistlePig come closest to mind. And in fact I used some WhistlePig 10 Year to prep my palate prior to this tasting. It is distinct from this Olde St. Nick Rye, sharing the aspect of savory herbs, though more dill than bay leaf. Similarly, Willett ryes have an herbal grassiness that relates to the Olde St. Nick experience.

And yet Olde St. Nick has its own thing going—that notable bay leaf aspect, the particular tart sweetness to its caramel, how that caramel blends with the vanilla, chocolate, and marshmallow aspects, and everything dusted with the range of herbs…

Now, I hate to beat dead horses, and I’ll stop soon. But it really is too bad this bottle is so overpriced, and that it all comes with the connection to company owner Palatella’s privileged crime. I’ve been upfront throughout my posts on this blog that I do not separate the out-of-glass aspects of a whiskey experience from what’s in the bottle. The personal connections and associations I have with the whiskeys I drink weigh on how they taste.

My predilection for oak flavors, for example, comes from my having grown up in an agricultural mountain area surrounded by oak trees, with harvest season every autumn and all its smells and tastes—fresh apple pies and caramel apples, cinnamon-laden fritters and doughnuts warm from the oven, the gradually changing weather…. Whiskeys offering those flavors are going to ping my sense-memories, conjuring up other childhood memories of events and celebrations.

Similarly, my partner, who doesn’t particularly care for whiskey, is nevertheless fond of the smokiest maritime scotches. This is entirely connected to her having visited her sister in Scotland many times, driving across the country, camping in the green hills, eating seafood chowder in pubs and dancing to music from spontaneously assembled neighborhood bands. All of this swirls in what she tastes when she drinks a Lagavulin or Croftengea.

And so, for me, Palatella’s business and personal choices taint the taste of her Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye. She’s priced it well beyond its age, and kept so much of the production details obscured—something that no longer flies in the current whiskey era. And there’s that college admissions scandal. All of this combined means I won’t buy Olde St. Nick Distillery products in the future, because I can’t fully extract those associations from the otherwise excellent flavor profile.

That’s me. And it has to do with what I value so much about whiskey—honesty and community. The taste is great. I love tasting whiskeys, exploring brands, encountering new flavor profiles… But even more, I love sharing those experiences with friends, family, and strangers gathered together in community with one another. Do I want someone in my community that would abuse their economic privilege for personal gain?

In the theater, where I do most of my work to pay my bills, there is a common frustration with artists who are not friendly, even abusive, and who nevertheless continue to be given work because they are exceptionally talented or their past accomplishments have earned them a reputation for making popular work. But they aren’t nice people, or, worse, they’re toxic toward others. How do their negative attitudes and actions manifest in the art itself? What is a producer selling when they sell tickets to work made by such a person? Is their talent and ability to sell tickets more valuable than the health or safety of those who must work with them?

I don’t think so. The theater is about community, people gathering to share experiences and to engage with their differences in an enlivening way that promotes empathy. This is something I’ve found in the whiskey community as well, where I’ve met wonderfully generous people I’d never have met otherwise. We may be even quite different in many respects, yet we’re united by our passion for whiskey.

Some of these people believe that whiskey should leave politics at the door. I try to respect that to the extent that I can. Issues don’t come up that often, really, and when they do they’re usually pretty easy to respond to. I’ve quietly stopped following certain whiskey related social media accounts, for example, once I realized they were emphasizing misogynist imagery, or consistently juxtaposing assault rifles with glasses of bourbon. One account combined handguns with bourbon and Barbie and Ken dolls engaged in kinky sex acts. I couldn’t see what I might stand to learn from that person. But I wish them well in their corner of the world.

What my experience with this Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye has made me reflect on most is this issue of being true to one’s own values while not abusively condemning others. Despite the rampant tendency toward the latter on social media, I wholeheartedly believe it is totally possible to strike that balance.

I’ll use that unusual gun/bourbon/Barbie social media account as an example. I believe in our individual freedom to explore our sexual interests, and I don’t believe we need to degrade women or own assault rifles to maintain our personal freedoms. I also understand there are people who enjoy kinky sex play and feel empowered by it. I live in San Francisco, after all, where there is a sex club for every kink imaginable, places people can go to safely explore themselves without fear of judgment or abuse. Likewise, I know there are places in our country where guns still help people put food on their tables. I grew up in a part of California—a mere three hours yet worlds away from San Francisco—where, in addition to being a sport, hunting was practical. I have many memories of dead deer hung up by their hind legs in a neighbor’s driveway, being prepped for division into cuts of meat that would provide food and income. I can hold all these truths as valid, while also choosing to no longer follow the gun/bourbon/Barbie account. Nor do I need to shame the person behind the account. It’s really easy to click “unfollow” and move on.

So if I choose not to purchase any further products from Olde St. Nick, I’m fully aware that my making that choice, and even my writing about it publicly, will not impact Marci Palatella or her business in any significant way. There are plenty of people who don’t think like I do, and who will continue to buy Olde St. Nick products. I have in fact not at all written these two posts with any intent to deter Palatella’s business or to shame anyone who buys her products. My goal is no more or less than to share my own honest, complicated experience with a whiskey I’ve found unexpectedly and uniquely intriguing, stimulating, problematic, and provocative.

So I raise this final sip to each of us on our individual journeys, in and out of whiskey. As long as we have the patience to get to know one another on each other’s own terms, there will be room for us all in any number of glasses, gathered around any bottle, sitting at any table, any time.


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