Comparison: Two Old Potrero Single Malt Ryes – a Cask Strength Store Pick and the 18 Year Bottled in Bond!

OLD POTRERO STRAIGHT RYE
single barrel #10 selected by K&L (2020)

MASH BILL – 100% malted rye

PROOF – 124.86

AGE – stated at 4 years 6 months by course, but more likely closer to 6 years

DISTILLERY – Hotaling & Co. (formerly Anchor Distilling Co.)

PRICE – $80 (on sale from $108)

OLD POTRERO HOTALING’S WHISKEY
single barrel bottled in bond release, bottle #77 of 225 (2016)

MASH BILL – 100% malted rye

PROOF – 100

AGE – 18 years

DISTILLERY – Anchor Distilling Company

PRICE – It’s complicated. See below…

I’ve been a big fan of the Old Potrero Rye single barrel releases since their very first, a 2017 bottling aged in a used Chardonnay cask. The standard Old Potrero release doesn’t have quite the same delicious wildness as the slightly older, cask strength single barrels. And each Old Potrero single barrel I’ve tried has shown a unique personality within the general Old Potrero flavor profile, which emphasizes chocolatey malt and an utterly unruly bundle of grassy rye notes.

Sometimes a barrel will throw a basket of some specific fruit into the mix. Barrel #9 from 2018 featured dark prunes balancing out the dry herbal aspects. The exceptional Barrel #13 from 2019 had rich dark red cherries. I followed #13 up with Barrel #12 (also 2019) which was dark like midnight—chocolate, coffee, molasses, thick malted rye and caramel, with nary a fruit note to be found.

Recently I uncorked this Barrel #10, and it immediately struck me as very like #12, emphasizing the chocolatey malt and herbal notes. But it also had a brandied quality adding sweetness. On the nose, the malt itself tasted brandied, along with dark juicy raisins and a boozy kind of chocolate. The taste was very like the nose, dark and syrupy. The finish then followed through on what had come before, lingering a long long while… Though not very fruity, it was rich and juicy, like a decadent chocolate sauce with bright sparks of mint.

Then there’s the 18 Year Hotaling’s Whiskey, a once-only, single barrel, bottled in bond release from 2016. In 2018 I’d lucked into a bottle of the 11 Year Hotaling’s release. It reminded me of Old Potrero’s standard release 18th Century Whiskey, aged just 2.5 years in a combination of new and used toasted barrels. The 18th Century is too raw and perfumey for me. But at 11 years, the results were much more refined and interesting.

Around that time I attended a private event at Hotaling & Co., where the kind host slipped me a sample of the 18 Year Hotaling’s release. Wow, is all I can remember feeling, thinking, and saying. I can’t recall now what the precise tasting notes were. I didn’t jot them down then. But I’ve been on the hunt for a bottle of that weird and wild elixir ever since.

Most whiskeys come with a story, and Hotaling’s 18 Year is no exception. It was released in 2016 to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Almost 30,000 buildings were destroyed, 3,000 lives lost, and 200,000 people left homeless by the seemingly apocalyptic event. By 1906 San Francisco had already earned its reputation as an eccentric city of sin. Clergymen of the time declared the earthquake to be divine retribution. It was an irony, then, that A.P. Hotaling’s warehouse on Jackson Street, filled with highly flammable whiskey barrels, was spared God’s wrath. A UC Berkeley professor at the time, Jerome B. Landfield, put up a suddenly homeless colleague for the night, who jotted down a short ode that captured the local attitude:

“If, as they say, God spanked the town,
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whisky?”

Hotaling’s warehouse (standing left) on Jackson Street, San Francisco, in April 1906.

So I’d been eyeing this very bottle, high up and out of reach on the wooden shelf of a local high-end shop, for a couple years. But at $600 the price was too much for me to stomach. Periodically I would ask them again how much it cost, hoping they might have discounted it. No such luck. (Liquor store owners can be very patient when it comes to these things.)

Recently I happened into the store again, not having visited in quite some time. There that old Old Potrero sat, still perched on its mahogany branch, still beckoning to me like some ancient woodland fairy. I went home and took stock of my whiskey bunker. I selected a handful of bottles I felt good about parting with. The money I’d paid for them was long since spent. None were bad. In fact, each of them was either good or great. But I’d had a bottle of each previously, and, given my recent commitment to bunkering fewer repeats, I gave them to a fellow whiskey fan at cost. Then I marched straight to that shop and asked them to bring that dusty Ol’ Potrero down from on high.

One skill whiskey fans develop is devising creative ways to justify the occasional splurge. 😉 I can look at the price of this bottle in a few ways to make myself feel better or worse. Tax and all, the tab came to $651. (It hurts even to write it.) I let that handful of bottles go at cost for a total of $650. So I could say this Old Potrero set me back only $1! Or I could disregard the $1 as pocket change, round it off to $650, and since I received $650 on the same day I put out $650, I could call it a wash and say the Old Potrero was free. Even more convoluted, I could look at it as a bottle trade of a handful for one, and therefore also free!

But of course the literal truth is, rather than spending $650 on a handful of bottles, I effectively spent $651 over a period of years—an unplanned payment plan—on one bottle.

Ouch.

But there it is. I did it. Now I’m going to drink that money. Metaphorically of course. The money is water under the bridge. But the whiskey isn’t. Not yet at least! 🥃

I might return to this question of value and economic hocus-pocus later. But now, it is with delight that I compare these two whiskeys! And to be clear: this comparison is ultimately one of appreciation, not of consumer decision making. As noted, Old Potrero can vary significantly from barrel to barrel. What is consistent is the wildness, the weirdness, the sense of something alive and untamed having somehow been captured in a bottle. Tasting Old Potrero is like exploring some magical secret garden from the sepia-toned past…!

The 18 Year Hotaling Whiskey has been uncorked for nearly two weeks now and this will be my third pour. The single barrel #10 has been open for two months and today I’m on the fourth or fifth pour. Here are some brief notes on each, tasted in traditional Glencairns. Given the significant difference in proof, I tasted the 18 Year first, barrel #10 second, then both side-by-side. These notes compile those steps:

COLOR

HOTALING 18 – like freshly melted butter

BARREL #10 – a vibrant, rich, toasted orange

BOTH – I could stare at these forever…

NOSE

HOTALING 18 – presents itself patiently with fresh milled grains, buttery lemon zest, bright yet gentle malt, fresh cornbread (surprising given the 100% rye mash bill)

BARREL #10 – thick molasses and malt right up front, then honey and butter spread thick over toasted rye bread

TASTE

HOTALING 18 – bright malted rye, butter with lemon juice, fresh dense and chewy homemade bread

BARREL #10 – molasses and chocolate, rich malt, some dried figs and prunes, a splash of peppery bite on the sides of the tongue

FINISH

HOTALING 18 – a fine peppery tingle around the malt, dried rye grains and rye grasses, a toasted sugar and cinnamon blend with a dollop of honey-butter

BARREL #10 – the peppery bite prickles around the molasses and malt notes, with a nice dark caramelized honey note rolling through, lingering warmly and long…

OVERALL

HOTALING 18 – buttery cornbread disguised as buttery rye bread

BARREL #10 – a dark brooder with a good sense of humor

WORTH BUYING?

HOTALING 18 – I’m glad it was money already spent, but, all things considered, heck yes!

BARREL #10 – Of the maltier O.P. SiB outings lacking in overt fruit notes, this is easily my fave given its rich molasses foundation, so, yes.

Well this side-by-side has a special place in my heart, I will admit. There’s the fact that I’m a big rye fan and Old Potrero is my local craft rye, producing 100% single malt ryes—an unusual choice—and honoring this eccentric city in which I’ve lived so long now. I was welcomed to San Francisco in 1989 by the Loma Prieta earthquake. So a special bottling of rollicking Old Potrero offered up in honor of the 1906 earthquake, which solidified San Francisco’s reputation as a perseverant place of questionable virtue, well, that is going to have a natural appeal to me.

That’s all marketing, though. If these whiskeys didn’t taste good, the stories on the labels wouldn’t matter a dang. Their complimentary colors embody the differences in the respective tasting experiences they each offer. The Hotaling 18, despite its ripe old age, is bright, lively and provocative like a burlesque comedienne. Aged in a once-used charred oak barrel, it has the look and feel of its scotch single malt cousins. Barrel #10, on the other hand, likely a third the age of the Hotaling, is like the character Hamlet—dark, challenging, witty and wily. In a fraction of the time it has soaked up all that rich charred oak color and the vibrant flavors that come with it. Both of these single barrel expressions feature that special ringing zing that comes from copper pot distillation, adding a vibrancy whether they tilt darker or brighter.

Though Old Potrero single barrel store picks have gone national, they haven’t caught fire like other small, non-sourced craft offerings have, such as Woodinville. So one might not readily find them. But for anyone who appreciates a wild and unusual ride through the rye fields akin to an old wooden rollercoaster—at San Francisco’s old Playland at the Beach, perhaps—they make a very worthy investment at around $100 on average.

One will be even less likely to encounter the Hotaling 18. One barrel produced 225 bottles in 2016, and that was that. There is also a Hotaling 16 out there and a slightly more common Hotaling 11, combining three barrels. But even those are now few and far between. I can’t say whether any Hotaling’s releases will for you be worth the financial hocus-pocus I conjured to obtain this one. But if you find a bottle in a bar and what I’ve described here sounds interesting, buy a shot for sure. Few ryes out there feature 100% rye, and fewer are malted, warranting “single malt” status.

The Old Potrero line has stuck to the intent of its founder, Fritz Maytag, to make old fashioned American rye the old fashioned way. The results do taste like something from a bygone era—rougher in their elegance, but elegant, and built to last. How many people in San Francisco today live or work in buildings built in the immediate wake of 1906? Quite a lot. And there have been many earthquakes since then to put those buildings to the test, yet there they stand.

Cheers!

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