WILDERNESS TRAIL CASK STRENGTH RYE
Single Barrel No. 15L3019B (2020)
MASH BILL – 56% rye, 33% corn, 11% barley
PROOF – 113
AGE – NAS (4-8 years)
DISTILLERY – Wilderness Trail
PRICE – $65
BUY AGAIN? – Yes indeed!
Wilderness Trail is a brand I’ve eyed on shelves over the past year or so, but not picked up. Then I noticed an uptick in very complimentary social media posts about it, and more local shops carrying it. I figured the whiskey spirits were giving me a nudge, so I picked up a bottle.
The name and design connote for me a region like Colorado or Washington, someplace more granola. (I like granola, btw.) But Wilderness Trail is a Kentucky operation, using a fairly traditional Kentucky ratio of grains in its rye mash bill. Like their peer, Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., Wilderness Trail boasts a sweet mash process—starting each new batch of distillate afresh rather than carrying over a bit from previous batches, which is the more common “sour mash” process used by most distilleries.
Being a big rye fan, I’m excited to try this. For me, rye is the great wild card. It can go spicy, sweet, dark, bright. Some of the weirdest whiskeys I’ve had have been ryes—or bourbons with a high percentage of rye in their mash bills. It’s a tough grain, tough on distilling machinery, and famous for gumming up the gears with its strength. There is a robust nature to rye that seems to result in whiskeys that surprise.
So here first are some notes in brief, taken on the second day after uncorking and tasted in a Canadian Glencairn—a great glass for fragrant ryes.
COLOR – a nice, rich orange with sparkling golden highlights
NOSE – bright and sweet rye spices, dill, caramel, rustic pine tree bark, a dusting of course ground black pepper
TASTE – immediately spicy in a very textural way, with the dill, caramel, and some nice oak
FINISH – warm, savory herbs, caramel, lingering gently but for a long while
OVERALL – Did WhistlePig have a long lost sister?
This lovely rye took me straight back to the Whistle Pig 10 Year cask strength store picks I’ve enjoyed. It’s the wonderful warmth of the proof combined with the prominent blend of dill, caramel, and herbal rye flavors.
The Wilderness Trail also has a clarity and cleanliness I associate with Peerless. I don’t have any Peerless Rye on the shelf at present. But I do have a 2017 store pick of the WhistlePig 10 Year, clocking in at 116.2 proof—similar to this Wilderness Trail’s even 113. I knew at once I’d need to compare them.
But before I do, a little more about the Wilderness Trail. I liked it immediately. It’s that dill/caramel combo, which sounds incongruous but really works. I tried it with some dill pickles and they shook hands nicely. I can imagine this complimenting a salmon well, or any Nordic fish dish. It’s a comforting, savory tasting experience balanced by the sweetness of the caramel and rye aspects, the latter offering a fine blend of sweet and savory herbs.
So I poured my sample into a Glencairn and topped it off a bit, then poured alongside it a Glencairn of the WhistlePig 10 Year. Their coloring is very similar, with the WhistlePig leaning just a bit more into the golden yellows. Nosing them back and forth, I now pick up some cinnamon in the Wilderness Trail that I hadn’t before, and in the Whistle Pig a stronger caramel note along with a bit of chocolate. They are very similar. I really have to concentrate to distinguish them. In a blind tasting I think I’d be at a loss.
Tasting them next to one another, each carries on from the promises of its nose. The Wilderness Trail remains brighter in its flavors, more granular in texture. The WhistlePig is a bit smoother in texture, darker in flavor, and with much more prominent caramel notes. By comparison. Again, they could be fraternal twins. Both finish with equal warmth, a fine peppery tingle, and similar herbal and caramel notes.
WhistlePig sources its rye from Alberta, Canada, then ages it in Vermont, finishing it in bourbon barrels. That’s quite a different journey from Wilderness Trail’s local Kentucky grains, copper pot distillation, and low 100 entry proof. I don’t know what the Canadian distillate’s entry proof or distillation mechanism is. I do know the Canadians generally tend to use more rye in their mash bills than Kentucky, and that this WhistlePig itself is a 100% unmalted rye mash.
What the precise factors are that unite the flavor profiles of these two whiskeys so closely I cannot say. But it’s striking! As ever, I don’t wish to declare one or the other “best.” There’s very little meaning in that beyond marketing. More meaningful, if still on the capitalist theme, is the fact that this Wilderness Trail single barrel, cask strength rye, which could be aged anywhere from 4 to 8 years, costs $65. Not cheap. But the WhistlePig, a single barrel, cask strength offering, age-stated at 10 years, costs $98. Peerless Rye, which I would also put at the level of these two in terms of a tasting experience, runs $108.
Given the similarities, the clear value for the buyer is Wilderness Trail. I’m a fan.