Captain Fletcher’s Private Reserve Rye Malt Whiskey

Aged in American oak and finished in Cognac barrels (2020)

MASH BILL – 100% malted rye

PROOF – 94.6

AGE – 8 years

DISTILLERY – Tamar Distillery

PRICE – $122


Founded in Redwood Valley, CA, in 2008, Tamar Distillery produces three primary spirits brands: Low Gap Whiskey, Fluid Dynamics Cocktails, and Mendocino Spirits. Additionally they produce Russell Henry Gin and Greenway Liqueurs & Absinthe. It’s a small operation doing a lot with a little.

Senior Distiller and co-founder Crispin Cain studied distilling as an apprentice and worked at Germain-Robin Brandy. Co-founder Tamar Kaye is Vice President and Director of Marketing. Kaye and Cain incorporated Tamar Distillery Inc. in 2009, and together have shepherded the company, favoring small and local over big and national. (Their spirits now ship only within CA, to AZ and KY.)

Their range of products and related websites seems overcomplicated for such a small outfit, making their core identity difficult to pull together. One website shares this detail and another that, rather than relaying the full story in one place. On the Mendocino Spirits website, Cain shares this:

While I worked for Germain-Robin Brandy, I had a vision of making fine whiskey here in Northern California, one which expresses the simple beauty of clean air, clean water, and tall trees, while capturing the complexity of malted grains from a variety of local and classic sources.

I create whiskies using the time honored traditions of Cognac, keen attention to fermentation, the Charentais Pot Still, the double distillation method, brought to barreling strength with filtered rain water, choosing fine barrels to match fine spirits. Carefully selecting the distillate which becomes Mendocino Spirits. 

Those traditions seem to work. Captain Fletcher’s Private Reserve Rye Malt Whiskey was awarded 95 points at the 2020 Ultimate Spirits Challenge. It’s not clear whether the release is a one-off or the first of more to come. In the various online locations it appears, marketing on the whiskey only specifies that it was distilled in 2012 in old Cognac pot stills, aged in American oak barrels for 8 years, and finished for some unspecified time in Cognac barrels.

The whiskey is named after Charles Fletcher, a Scottish whale boat captain who in 1851 settled in what would eventually become the town of Navarro, in California’s Mendocino County. The seaside town gradually vanished over the course of many floods, fires and earthquakes. But there is still an old historic inn there, built by Fletcher in 1865. The Fletcher family sold it in 1926. Thereafter it passed from owner to owner, run as a restaurant and bar, until it was finally shuttered in the late 1970s. In 1996 the decaying building was purchased by Navarro River Redwoods State Park, which has preserved it courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and many donors. Tamar Distillery donates a portion of the profits from this whiskey toward the Fletcher Inn’s ongoing restoration.

When I uncorked the rye, I was immediately taken by its glowing buttery color, then by the sweet and malty aromas and flavors. The cognac influence was very present, almost as if a rye malt and cognac had been blended. They didn’t yet seem integrated. I set the bottle aside for a few days.

Meanwhile I was looking up recipes for the Sazerac Cocktail, which I’ve always known as a rye based drink. I’ve avoided cocktails for the most part, fearing the number of bottles I’d accumulate on top of my whiskey collection! I could easily get lost down the cocktail rabbit hole, being an armchair fan of both cooking and magic. To ease the pressure of my curiosity, periodically I’ll pick one common whiskey based cocktail, research it thoroughly, gather the secondary ingredients, and then make it in variation until they run out. This is what had me looking into the Sazerac.

The Sazerac cocktail is generally co-credited to Aaron Bird, the original 19th century proprietor of New Orleans’ famed Sazerac Coffee House, and Antoine Peychaud, a Creole apothecary who emigrated to New Orleans from the West Indies. The drink originally used cognac—specifically the brand Sazerac de Forge et Fils—in combination with Peychaud’s own family aromatic bitters recipe. But when an insect infestation in France reduced cognac production, rye whiskey was substituted. And so this Captain Fletcher’s seemed a perfect rye for a Sazerac, blending the cocktail’s full cognac/rye history.

So after a couple days of Sazeracs, here we are again with the rye on its own, served neat and tidy, six days after uncorking and a good handful of pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.

COLOR – pale golden straw and lemon

NOSE – the malt reaches right out of the glass up front, then comes honeyed cognac, then sweet gooey caramel like on caramel apples, a dollop of vanilla sauce, cream, eventually oak and finely ground black pepper

TASTE – thick and syrupy honey from the cognac, that sweet gooey caramel, nice oak, and finally the malt returns to wash over everything like a wave

FINISH – malt, honey, cognac, caramel, a soft but palpable warmth from the easygoing proof with a gentle wave of prickly heat

OVERALL – This one comes in long waves of desserty, syrupy sweetness, outlined by the malt and oak

Though the cognac remains distinct enough to constitute its own note, it’s now a bit more integrated courtesy of the honey and caramel, the one likely from the cognac itself and the other from 8 years in oak.

It’s dessert. Decadent in a bright way—rich thick buttery caramel as opposed to dark saucy chocolate. Not the kind of thing I’d want to make a night of. But it would certainly cap a wonderful, meaty meal.

I can’t say it’s complex. It’s flavor profile is very forward footed. I don’t have to dig for the notes. It’s like someone with an immediately winning personality, and then after a while you realize there’s not as much going on inside as outside. Do they ever get mad? Do they brood? Is their life really so genuinely sweet, all the time?

It does make a great Sazerac, I will say. Often “good for mixing” is a backhanded compliment, meaning the whiskey isn’t good enough on its own and needs to be diluted among other more interesting things. Maybe because I’m so narrowly focused in my cocktail making, I’m more of the mind to use “the good stuff” to make my Manhattan or Sazerac or whatever it is. The better the ingredients, the better the outcome.

And I can enjoy this on its own as well, whenever I’m in the mood for a brightly rich, desserty whiskey. It reminds me of certain scotches, like a caramel bomb of an Invergordon I once enjoyed. I loved that bottle. Generally I’m less inclined toward overtly sweet whiskeys. But occasionally I do just want a bit of candied pizzaz. Until this bottle runs dry, Captain Fletcher’s will be my go to in those moments—if the Sazeracs don’t guzzle it first!


Five O’clock Somewhere

Here’s how I made the Captain Fletcher’s Sazerac:

  1. Chill a tumbler and another glass in the freezer.

  2. Once the glasses are thoroughly chilled, pour 1/4 ounce St. George Absinthe into the tumbler and swirl it around the sides to the level the other ingredients will eventually touch. Put it back in the freezer.

  3. Pour 2 ounces of Captain Fletcher’s Rye into the other chilled glass and put it back in the freezer.

  4. Do other things for about 15 minutes, including scraping off a nice wedge of lemon zest.

  5. Swirl the Absinthe in the tumbler again, then dump it out. Immediately pour the chilled rye whiskey into the tumbler.

  6. Add 3 dashes of Peychaud’s and 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters to the tumbler, plus a teaspoon of simple syrup, and stir it up. Give the lemon zest a twist above the drink and drop it in the glass.

  7. Drink that Sazerac!
    🥃 ☜

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