Two Workhorse Ryes: Virgin Cask & Redhorse

WORKHORSE VIRGIN CASK RYE
Batch No. One

MASH BILL – 70% west coast rye, 20% malted barley, 10% malted wheat

PROOF – 100

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Workhorse Rye, contract distilling with Sutherland Distilling Co.

PRICE – $19 (on sale) for a 200ml bottle

WORKHORSE REDHORSE RYE
Batch No. “Broc Counoise”

MASH BILL – 70% west coast rye, 20% malted barley, 10% malted wheat

PROOF – 120

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Workhorse Rye, contract distilling with Sutherland Distilling Co.

PRICE – $19 (on sale) for a 200ml bottle

I’d been eyeing these little 200ml Workhorse Rye bottles at a local artisanal shop for a couple years. The price there—$45 each—kept me at bay. Despite my interest in ethically sourced grains, supporting local businesses, and trying new things, I didn’t want to pay that much for a 200ml bottle. So when they each went on sale at another local shop for $19 tax and all, I finally bit.

Workhorse Rye is contract-distilled at Sutherland Distillery in Livermore, CA, the same operation that contract-distills for Home Base Spirits, a brand any follower of this blog knows I keep tabs on. Upon nosing these two Workhorse Rye whiskeys, a DNA relationship to Home Base was already clear. There were also distinctions, of course. And the similarities likely have more to do with the common link of Sutherland than either Home Base or Workhorse, each of which use different mash bills sourcing grains from different farms.

Before jumping into the tasting, I’ll make note of something up front. I struggle with these whiskeys. It’s a worthwhile struggle, I will say, between the philosophical and the experiential—between the ethical approach espoused by Workhorse Rye and my tasting experience of the whiskeys. This struggle begets a conversation about values. With that in mind…

Here are notes taken from the very first pours at uncapping. Given the 20-degree proof difference, I tasted the lower-proof Virgin Cask first before then moving on to the Redhorse, both in traditional Glencairns.

VIRGIN CASK

COLOR – warm burnt sienna with glints of brass and gold

NOSE – youthful, with raw husky grains, fresh apricot bread, dried apricot, and cherry

TASTE – makes good on the promise of the nose, with those same notes, plus a creaminess in both texture and flavor; also a very faint cardboard note, faint enough to mostly get lost among the bread and fruit flavors

FINISH – warm, gentle, easy, with the bread and cream notes lingering most prominently

OVERALL – a young whiskey, pleasant enough, with a very familiar “craft” roughness of flavor despite its smooth and creamy mouthfeel

BUY AGAIN? – I wouldn’t, no, given there are related but less expensive craft options available

REDHORSE

COLOR – a gorgeous deep orange with russet highlights

NOSE – rough grains and a dark cardboard note up front, well water, raw bread dough, faint and fleeting red wine notes

TASTEmuch more pleasing than the nose, with dark jammy red wine notes, a round and gooey caramel center, and a bit of milk chocolate

FINISH – warm and tingly, with the red wine and caramel notes, some faint dark apricot, and unfortunately now also a return of the cardboard note

OVERALL – surprisingly smooth and easy for its hefty proof, with too much of that unpleasant cardboard aspect on the nose and finish for my tastes, spoiling the juicy flavors in between

BUY AGAIN? – No, for the same reasons as the Virgin Cask, plus that cardboard note

Well I’m glad to have tried these. But also glad to have held out for a sale. Spared the distraction of the full expense, while sipping I could devote my attention more to the tasting experience itself.

Both whiskeys feature beautiful colors that glow in the light. The Virgin Cask tastes fine—bready, grainy, familiar, with a pleasing creaminess to it. I won’t reach for it often, but I can certainly drink it. The Redhorse is tougher, featuring that dominant cardboard note on the nose and finish, which for me is a deal breaker. But in between the nose and finish, it’s legitimately intriguing on the taste.

Without the cardboard bookends, the Redhorse would be a much better experience for me. My understanding is this note comes from a certain amount of the backend of the distillate being retained. I’ve found it in a few Sutherland-distilled Home Base Spirits bourbon batches as well. Bertie’s Bear Gulch Bourbon, from Saint Liberty Whiskey, also features this note and I couldn’t get past it there either. It’s a flavor note that can quickly override the good of other notes in a whiskey for me. It shows up in enough craft whiskeys that there must be people who like it. I’ve personally yet to discern any appeal in it.

A full 750ml bottle of the Virgin Cask goes for $100. A 750ml Redhorse goes for $120. The ultra-premium cost no doubt comes from small-scale production and the rarified ingredients used. One isn’t paying for age. Both whiskeys are non-age-stated, which should mean they are at least 4 years old. But if either of these are actually 4+ years of age, I’d be shocked. They taste decidedly young.

I emailed Workhorse asking if they could verify the ages. Rob Easter, founder of the company, wrote me back and his reply was refreshingly congenial and detailed. He’s willing to share age statements when asked—under a year for the Virgin Cask, and a blend of 1, 2, and 4-year whiskeys for the Redhorse—but said he’s disinclined toward putting them on the label because he feels the industry is too focused on barrel aging, and not focused enough on farming, environmental and labor issues.

Regarding legalities in labelling, because the Redhorse is aged entirely in used barrels and therefore categorized as “whiskey” and not “rye whiskey,” according to Easter it is not required by the TTB to include an age statement on the label. (This does not appear to coincide with the TTB page on the subject, however, also neatly summated here.) For the Virgin Cask, aged less than a year but in new oak barrels and therefore a “rye whiskey,” an age statement should definitely be required. Yet Easter eschews any mention of age on the label, and his email didn’t make clear to me why the TTB didn’t balk.

Marketing and legalities aside, based on the tasting experience alone I find these whiskeys disappointing and their cost incongruous. Despite the evident care and consideration that went into making them, they’re neither interesting to me nor unique, almost a cliché of the artisanal craft whiskey market—a rough tasting experience overall, smartly packaged, really expensive.

And it’s particularly disappointing when this kind of experience comes from an operation on the right side of ethical farming and production. Everything Workhorse states on their website I’m 100% in line with—purchasing only responsibly grown grains from local farms that pay their employees well, using recycled materials in production, not using women’s bodies to sell their products… Exactly the sort of business I want to support. Yet the whiskeys taste as they do.

Of course, there’s the “no disputing taste” truism. As a stance, it’s kind of like opinions—of no use beyond killing a conversation, since opinions can’t be proven or debated. I wouldn’t dispute whether the makers of Workhorse Rye truly believe in the flavor profiles they’ve landed on here. From their website and Easter’s email to me, it’s very evident they do. So if the Workhorse Rye crew are happy with their products and how most of their customers receive them, then it’s all in a good day’s work. And if a given drinker finds the taste on offer worth the price, okay.

One might also suggest I throw these whiskeys into a blind tasting, to put them to a real test, fully freed up from any associations or preconceptions. I’ve never believed in the notion that blind tastings are the true arbiter of a whiskey. Blind tastings are fun. I thoroughly enjoy them. But after you remove the blinders, the price tag is still there and the money still gone from your bank account.

Furthermore, nothing in Workhorse Rye’s marketing, social media, or Rob Easter’s email to me suggests they would want their drinkers to consume their whiskeys blind. Quite the opposite. Their language consistently promotes awareness of the ethical concerns that drive their products. Even when I posted on Instagram that I’d finished these two bottles alongside a couple others, their comment referenced the farmers who grow their grains:

I believe Workhorse Rye is a sincere operation, and I share their convictions.

Hence my struggle.

Beyond the disconnect between taste and price, there is another disconnect at work. I sincerely appreciate how Workhorse Rye consistently promotes the ethical concerns their products seek to address. Few distilleries are so committed to reminding their customers of such things. There is an irony, however, that to experience things one might hope to be basic, like real food made with sustainable practices by properly paid workers, one must be pretty well off. The farmhands who harvested the grains for these whiskeys likely can’t afford a bottle.

This is not an issue unique to Workhorse Rye, to be certain. It’s a long standing, widespread problem that basics like actual food, well-made clothing, or proper health care, have been put out of financial reach for so many people. Because capitalism values consumers and their money, not people and their wellbeing, we live in a world where basic needs are rendered elite. This gap between ethical intent and its limited reach seems to me a blind spot of various producers of artisanal goods.

I’m reminded here of a parallel in the theater that seeks to justify this gap. The American theater director, Peter Sellars, whose work has always been politically oriented, once said that he began to focus more on opera because he realized the people in power were going to the opera, and it was they who needed to experience art promoting social justice. This sounds logical, though I wonder how often an opera or whiskey has compelled a politically influential person to improve social justice.

That said, another logical argument can be made: that every attempt is a grain of sand in the eventual landslide. Gravity doesn’t value one grain much more than another. But enough grains accumulated have the weight to alter the landscape.

I greatly appreciate Workhorse Rye’s ethics. I don’t care for their whiskeys or prices. But at least they compel a conversation about the relationship between taste, cost, ethics, and what one ultimately values—in both the financial and moral sense of that word. It’s not just an interesting consumer question but an important one. What do each of us value more: the satisfaction of our own personal desires, or the ethics by which the products we buy are made and sold?

That’s something whiskey does well: compel conversations along the journey. And since it’s the journey that matters, despite my disappointment with the whiskey in this instance, Cheers to the journey.

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