JOSEPHINE’S FLATHEAD RIVER RYE
Bootlegger’s Collection Chapter 1, a limited release of 30 barrels (2020)
MASH BILL – 95% rye, 5% malted barley
PROOF – 91
AGE – 5 years
DISTILLERY – Saint Liberty Whiskey, sourcing distillate from an unnamed Tennessee distillery, with proofing done in Montana using Rocky Mountain water.
PRICE – $60
BUY AGAIN? – I just might!
My introduction to Saint Liberty Whiskey was their Bertie’s Bear Gulch bourbon, named after Bertie Brown, one among the few young African American women to homestead alone in Montana in the 1920’s. The authentic 1920’s bottle design initially grabbed my eye. Then after some online research, I was taken by Saint Liberty’s mission to honor largely unknown Prohibition-era women with each new whiskey they produce—in the present post’s case, Josephine Doody, a dance hall worker turned distiller, nicknamed the Bootleg Lady of Glacier Park, who eventually went into hiding after killing a man at the dance hall. One must suspect the man may have got what was coming to him, the 1920’s being what they were, men treating women how they did, and the law being of little help.
Five percent of Saint Liberty’s gross sales revenue go to women’s empowerment, education and entrepreneurial groups—namely the PowHERful Foundation, an organization that supports young women from low-income backgrounds getting through college. In the Summer of 2020, a Black-women-owned spirits advisory and investment company, Hands, bought a stake in Saint Liberty. Dia Simms and Erin Harris, owners of Hands and now part-owners of Saint Liberty as well, work with Saint Liberty founder Mark SoRelle to research, develop, and market products telling the untold stories of women in whiskey history.
Unfortunately, Bertie’s Bear Gulch bourbon itself was not a good tasting experience for me, so much so I even questioned the intent of SoRelle’s mission. I gave the bourbon multiple tries, and notes on these are detailed in my post. SoRelle even contacted me, alarmed by my tasting notes and concerned I may have picked up a bottle from a bad batch. He asked if I could mail him a sample. I did. After trying it himself, he said it tasted as it was intended to taste. So it simply was not a bourbon for me.
Nevertheless, the Saint Liberty mission remains what it is. And I take the advent of Dia Simms and Erin Harris’ involvement with the company as further evidence that SoRelle is very sincere in his intent and mission. So when a bottle of Josephine’s Flathead River Rye turned up at a local shop, I picked it up.
I uncorked it right away. It had an immediately striking flavor profile. I purposelessly didn’t take notes. I wanted to drink it for real, casually and enjoying the view off the back deck of the house I’d happened to be looking after for a friend. Now it’s a week later, the bottle has aired out a bit further, and I’m sitting down with it more formally.
Here are some notes in brief, taken a week after uncorking and three pours into the bottle, tasted in a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – a soft, glowing, toasty orange
NOSE – bright rustic herbal notes mixing pine needles, spearmint, peppermint, pine tree bark, bay leaf, wild toyon berry, then some faint caramel taffy and a bit of breakfast pastry dough
TASTE – that bright rustic herbal medley carries through, now with stronger backing from the caramel and breakfast pastry, a bit of vanilla and marshmallow, a distinct granite note, and something citric like mandarine orange zest
FINISH – long, that mandarine orange zest note lingering amongst the brighter aspects of the herbal medley, the granite, creamy marshmallow, everything leaving a refreshing sensation
OVERALL – a wonderfully unique rye experience, with the word “refreshing” coming continually to mind as I sit with it…
Well this is a very different experience than Bertie’s Bear Gulch was. And to be fair, they are inherently different whiskeys. Though both are proofed down with Montana water, Bertie’s is a 4-year Texas bourbon bottled at 87 proof, and Josephine’s is a 5-year Tennessee rye bottled at 91 proof. The only reason to relate them is that they each come out of Saint Liberty Whiskey. Tasted blind, there’d be no associating one with the other.
I’m delighted by this rye. I love ryes for their spice and weirdness. Rye whiskeys are more often wild and out there than bourbons tend to be. There is something interesting about that tough little grain, rye. It almost resists distillation, with the machine-breaking stickiness that can come of it when mashed, and that ornery, tar-like creosote note lurking in its molecular structure, threatening as it ages in the barrel to pave over the more pleasant herbal, floral, and spice notes rye is more known to yield.
Josephine’s has an untamed freshness to it I associate with the woods of Placerville where I grew up. Every year in Winter there is this weirdly warm, windy day when flocks of robins descend on my family’s home and get drunk on the toyon berries. The wind fills the air with their loud chirping and with scents of toyon, pine, oak, bay leaf, moss on tree bark… This rye makes me think of that day—wild, boozy, odd, and life affirming.
I poured a bit more into a Canadian Glencairn, a glass I find presents ryes well. There the same aromas wafted up from the glass, only a notch darker and with some added oak. The taste was also similar as in the traditional Glencairn, only with added emphasis on a certain rustic pine tree note—the whole tree, not one aspect—as well as a touch more caramel and pastry. The finish lingered just as long, with a bit more vanilla.
All in all a rye well done. And a refreshing (there’s that word again) change from the more typical Kentuckian or Canadian rye experiences. Josephine’s Flathead River Rye is so specific, it might not be a “daily pour” for me. More of a pour for those days when I really want my attention taken by what I’m drinking. Or something to make a cocktail sing. Though I can imagine Josephine’s particular herbal brightness ringing a bit too loudly for some people, for me it’s delightful.