Laws San Luis Valley Rye – Cask Strength Store Pick!

LAWS SAN LUIS VALLEY RYE
Barrel #508 selected by K&L (2021)

MASH BILL – 100% heirloom San Luis Valley rye (50% malted and 50% unmalted)

PROOF – 117.8

AGE – 5 years 4 months

DISTILLERY – Laws Whiskey House

PRICE – $82

WORTH BUYING? – Oh yes

Laws is a Denver, Colorado, brand I’ve eyed for a couple years, though at this point not in a while. Reviews I’d read early on seemed to speak to a young craft distillery, still putting out whiskeys that tasted “young.”

What does that mean? Any number of things. But notes like “splintery,” “raw grains,” “green,” “astringent,” “unintegrated” and the like come to mind. With so many craft options to choose from, Laws just didn’t stand out from the crowd for me.

Then just a couple months ago, while housesitting for a friend, I popped into their local corner store and on the floor in front of the liquor shelf a few Laws bottles were lined up, almost incidentally. The Four Grain Bonded Bourbon aged 6 years. The San Luis Valley Bonded Rye also aged 6 years. And the younger regular release of the San Luis Valley Rye.

That Laws was getting into bonded whiskeys with 6-year age statements, rather than the minimum 4-years, caught my attention. I see you, Laws, I thought, and picked the bottles up off the floor to look over their labels for additional deets.

Labels are marketing. But they do tell you things about what’s in the bottle, both practical information and other less tangible things. What a distillery chooses to say on their label speaks in some way, directly or indirectly, to what they value. What first impression do they try to make? What’s important to them right up front?

For example, the Laws bottles themselves are stocky, solid chunks of glass, conveying gravitas and an old-fashioned apothecary-era seriousness. Having their name and brand cut into the glass itself adds a specificity—it’s not just a bottle they ordered from some generic stock.

Reading the labels, there were the basic requirements like proof and place of origin. Each bottle also had a concise, straightforward description of the whiskey. No fancy talk. Clear, simple, confident introductions to say hello. Like a firm handshake.

I didn’t buy a bottle that day. But now Laws was on my mind. I was particularly struck by the detail of their naming the exact regional rye they’d used. They didn’t just bottle some general rye. They bottled a San Luis Valley Rye. What did that mean?

Here’s what they say:

8,000 feet above sea level, in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the Cody family has been cultivating this low yield, semi-wild rye grain since the 1930s. We fell in love with how it ferments and distills into a terroir-driven, unapologetic whiskey. 

Boom. I was sold. I’m a big fan of local businesses working with other local businesses. I love that they selected a rare, undomesticated heirloom grain to work with, and from a smaller family farm. I appreciate they are a craft distillery that does not source or outsource any aspect of their process. They mill, cook, ferment, distill and age everything in their own joint. They use open-air fermentation to allow as much of the local terroir to slip into the mash as possible. They distill in copper pot column stills for that lively zing those stills provide, and which I’ve found, in other copper pot distilled ryes, pairs very well with rye’s own lively tendencies.

So when this single barrel store pick of the San Luis Valley Rye popped up on the K&L website just a few days later, it caught my attention. K&L had also gotten in several cases of other regular Laws releases, including the 6-year bonded edition of the San Luis Valley Rye. Although this single barrel was younger by roughly 8 months, the undiluted proof was more appealing to me than the slight age difference. I’ve noticed that proof can actually have more impact for me than age when it comes to flavor. I’m a big fan of flavor bomb whiskeys, and those can be younger or older. Water down a whiskey of any age and the bomb gets diffused. Leave it at cask strength and it can explode. That doesn’t guarantee greatness. But proof is a dependable indicator of what amount and intensity of flavor will get pushed forward.

So here we are. I uncorked this bottle a week ago with a couple of co-workers. We were visiting our office for the first time in well over a year, and I happened to had just picked the bottle up. So we uncorked it and poured a splash into some small paper cups still to be found in the office kitchen, to toast our return. Neither of them were big whiskey drinkers and they both raised their eyebrows upon first sip. They dug it. “That’s powerful,” one of them said.

I’ve had a few small sips since then, in various glasses, and each time this whiskey has compelled me to take a deep breath, shake my head and utter “man oh man!” That’s a good sign. Now a couple of pours in, I’m tasting it today in a traditional Glencairn. Here we go.

COLOR – a beautiful range of toasted yellows and oranges

NOSE – very forthcoming, hits me even from across the table, with caramelized rye spices, smoky BBQ briquette, malt, coffee, a melted dark chocolate fudge sauce, and a bundle of dried grasses and herbs

TASTE – such a nice balance between the malted and unmalted rye, with some serious chocolate, then coffee, crystalizing honey, that bundle of wild herbal rye notes, some kind of wood bark like California redwood (I know this is from Colorado but the CA redwood forests are where my senses go), and a nice caramel layer dashed with freshly crushed dried mint leaf.

FINISH – that mint leaf, the caramel, coffee and malt, a whiff of the BBQ smoke, none of it in any hurry…

OVERALL – A dark, rich, chocolatey, very lively and still wild rye whiskey

The closest whiskey I can compare this to is Old Potrero, which uses 100% malted rye and is also copper pot distilled. The Laws combo of malted and unmalted rye yields a similarly pungent array of flavors that are both dark and bright—lively, is the word that keeps coming to me, rather than bright.

Though it leans dry, and I’m not the biggest fan of dry whiskeys, there is enough candy sweetness in the mix to complicate and balance things. That balance is delightfully, playfully teetering—a sense of things being in motion. This is not a whiskey that compels me to lean back into a large cushy leather chair and reflect. Rather, it sits me up, and has me ready to stomp my feat to some mountain bluegrass music.

Like Old Potrero, I don’t believe Laws San Luis Valley Rye is going to be for everyone. Great! Maybe that will mean I’ll always be able to find it. The strong malt notes can be intense. This is not what anyone might call “smooth,” either with regard to the taste, heat, or mouthfeel. It’s complex, unusual, with a sense of daring about it.

So if you like unpredictable whiskeys, give Laws a go. If you tend to prefer variations of what you expect from the dominant bourbon states (KY, IN, TN) you might find yourself thrown for a loop. This isn’t a background whiskey. It demands some attention. Laws San Luis Valley Rye is craft whiskey that demonstrates just how craft whiskey can strike out on its own from tradition, actually respecting tradition by offering alternative experiences. A paradox that works.

Cheers!

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