NEW RIFF BOURBON
Single barrel #15-4911 selected by K&L (2019)
MASH BILL – 65% corn, 30% rye, 5% malted barley
PROOF – 111.9
AGE – 4 years 1 month
DISTILLERY – New Riff
PRICE – $54
WORTH BUYING? – Oh for sure.
Established in 2014, New Riff set out on a familiar path. While waiting for their own distillate to age, they put out bottlings of sourced whiskey from MGP. But rather than putting their own name on it, they sold it under the label “O.K.I. Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” Often very well-aged selections from MGP’s ubiquitous high-rye bourbon stock, these moved quickly from shelves to the online secondary market. Using a different name cleverly kept buyers from associating New Riff with the sourced MGP flavor profile.
This basic scenario—sourcing from MGP while your own stocks are in the works—is very common. The moment of truth then comes when the new distillery puts out its first round of original stuff. New Riff opted to wait until their whiskeys reached four years, and, in addition to their standard releases, also made barrel proof store picks available. This accounts for the big wave of interest that hit them in 2019. By many reports at that time, New Riff had done things right and their bourbons and ryes were achieving an uncommon level of maturity for a then five-year-old distillery. Catching wind of that wave, I nabbed this bottle when K&L put their pick online.
As of this writing, that was roughly two years ago. What took me so long to open it?
I believe my lack of hurry to crack this bottle came from its being one of many attached to that very common craft distillery story. Despite a highly distinct bottle design, New Riff didn’t otherwise stand out enough for me to get past the FOMO point of purchase and actually experience the whiskey. Admittedly, I didn’t do terribly much research into New Riff at the time. Noticing an upswing of excitement about it in social media, I took a cursory glance at an online article or two. Then K&L’s own enthusiastic descriptions of the single barrels they’d obtained went live online and I clicked “Add to Cart.”
That initial round of K&L picks sold pretty quickly. They’ve had more since, and though the buying fervor has died down, New Riff single barrels remain popular offerings that show up regularly in the social meds nationwide.
Now I’ve finally cracked it open—a late night impulse after a long day that had left me thirsty for something new. Or at least new to me.
Upon first sip my eyebrows went right up. Wow. A very articulate Kentucky bourbon right out of the gate—vanilla, cola, cinnamon baking spices, chocolate, caramel—and without feeling merely derivative. This was good. At first taste it seemed like a spritely love child of MGP and Wild Turkey. A child of tradition that had found its own personality. Very interesting.
So now, belatedly, I finally did my research. Independently owned, New Riff has the freedom to go about things how they’d like. Rather than release 1 or 2-year whiskeys like many craft distilleries do, they held out until they could go straight for Bottled in Bond—an 1897 set of standards that today still holds caché as a mark of quality. To be considered Bottled in Bond, a bourbon or rye must be distilled in one distilling season at one distillery, aged at least 4 years, and bottled at 100 proof. New Riff added bottling without chill filtration to their set standards. They apply these standards to their bourbons and ryes, as well as their experiments with malted whiskeys and various specialty grain mash bills.
Here is how they themselves describe their process:
We began, as any distillery should, with water, with a private tap into an ancient aquifer right under our feet. Our distillation equipment is all-copper: wherever the mash or distillate is heated, we want it in contact with nothing but copper, to help our whiskey age for decades to come. Every batch of New Riff whiskey is sour mashed, in accord with the Kentucky Regimen we have vowed to uphold. We allow a slow, natural rise in fermentation temperature over a patient four-day fermentation, collecting flavors from our native microflora all along the way. Perhaps our greatest, yet simplest process is that of patience: at least four years in a full-size 53-gallon barrel for any New Riff whiskey. You’ll find no small-barrel shortcuts—or any other kind of shortcuts—here. New Riff makes whiskey the hard way: every single whiskey takes at least four years in the making. And every New Riff Bourbon & Rye (aside from our extensive Single Barrel Program at barrel proof) is bottled under the highest quality standard in the world: the 1897 Bottled in Bond Act.
So at a relatively young age, this distillery came out guns blazing, with Bottled in Bond status whiskeys soon followed by a range of interesting experiments. Packaged in their signature modern-style bottle rather than any of the typical old-timey designs, the “new” in New Riff is signaled upon sight. But the true test is in the tasting.
Now three days after uncorking and three pours into this bottle, these brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – medium amber-orange
NOSE – rye spice and old-fashioned cinnamon hard candies, caramel, taffy, fresh butter, a dash of black pepper
TASTE – just unflashy “mmm”-inducing good right away, with the rye and baking spices, a lemony tang with honey and butter, the caramels, some nice oak and vanilla
FINISH – rye, caramel, cinnamon roll dough, a nice peppery tingle from the various lingering spices and proof
OVERALL – Good old-fashioned bourbon with spring in its step
Yep. I’m still getting that MGP / Wild Turkey love child vibe. It’s got the high rye hit I associate with MGP, and the autumnal baking flavors and kick I associate with Wild Turkey 101. It really does live up to the brand’s name, New Riff. I can taste the “new” and the “riff” and they are perfectly blended.
I’m curious how my journey with this bottle will go. While I’ve found the bourbon immediately and entirely enjoyable each of the three times I’ve now tried it, I’m also understanding why my gut didn’t have me in a rush to uncork it two years ago. It does taste “new” in the sense of its having a bright and lively quality, a feeling of life and energy about it, though not “new” in the sense of unprecedented.
That last bit is the “riff” part. By design, this bourbon is riffing on tradition. I can taste that tradition—namely Indiana and Kentucky. The New Riff mash bill is a much closer cousin to Indiana’s MGP (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) than to Kentucky’s Wild Turkey (75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley). So, what aspect of the New Riff process is responsible for my Wild Turkey association, I’m not certain…
That’s a whiskey mystery I may never get to know. Fine. This is good. And I’m going to enjoy drinking it. It is very satisfying. My curiosity is whether I’ll continue to follow New Riff closely after this bottle. For me, the “riff” is ultimately more prominent than the “new.” And I can get variations on this experience for less $$ from both Wild Turkey and MGP’s own brand, George Remus. So why pay more for New Riff?
The answer may be to come. This is at present my first and only New Riff experience, after all. I’m certainly intrigued enough to want to try their rye and some of their grain experiment releases. It’s clear that the word on the street was right: New Riff is up to something. They are a distillery to follow.
So, here I am: off on a new leg of the journey!