LEOPOLD BROS THREE CHAMBER RYE
Bottled in Bond Holiday Edition (2022)
MASH BILL – 80% Abruzzi rye, 20% malted barley
PROOF – 100
AGE – 5 to 6 years
DISTILLERY – Leopold Bros
PRICE – $221 (more commonly ~$250)
WORTH BUYING? – Almost, and even then only if you’re a big rye fan and history buff
My introduction to the Leopold Bros Three Chamber Rye was compromised, albeit in a positive way. It was the late-2021 collaboration with George Dickel, blending the latter’s as-of-yet unreleased column still rye with the Leopold Bros Three Chamber Rye, which itself made its solo debut earlier that same year. I liked that blend, and appreciated the unique joint venture between two distilleries one wouldn’t otherwise associate with one another. I also thought it was too expensive for the experience. But it was half the price of the Three Chamber on its own, so, I took a chance.
The Three Chamber Rye appeals to my interest in history, and in the value of slow processes over quick gains. Since capitalism values speed, slow is more expensive than fast. Thus the $250 average price on this meticulously crafted rye.
For full details, watch this informative video. (It’s slow, but it only costs 25 minutes.) In brief, Todd Leopold came across antique design manuscripts for a Three Chamber Still—a type of still not made for nearly a century but once in popular use. Its process was slower than profit making prefers, so it eventually died out. Leopold’s running interest in the origins of American whiskey was piqued. After further research, interest turned to determination and he eventually commissioned a new still based on the old manuscripts.
But what to make with it?
Rye was the primary grain of choice in American whiskey until the 20th Century. Like all other foods, rye grain has changed over time as humankind has systematically altered the landscape for profit. Flavor and nutrients have been grown out of many commonly farmed grains. So Leopold also commissioned production of a heritage variant of the rye grain called Abruzzi, a once popular low-starch, high-oil, beautifully fragrant rye varietal brought to the US from Italy long ago. It’s tougher to distill than modern genetically engineered ryes, but more flavorful.
I do suggest pouring yourself a glass of rye and watching the full video referenced above, to get the complete picture of this revived process. Todd Leopold’s passion for whiskey and his multi-directional commitment to quality, innovation, tradition, and sustainability, are extraordinary. What other American distillery is doing quite the range of what Leopold Bros Distillery does? All that time and attention means a high price tag for the consumer. So it isn’t a popular venture in the sense of economic accessibility. It’s arguably elitist, though not in the snobby sense often associated with that term. Todd Leopold’s demeanor is laidback and his curiosity quite clearly genuine. It’s evident he’s operating from a motivation beyond profit. And yet the bills must be paid. And when you’re commissioning one-of-kind whiskey stills and rare tough grains, one can imagine the bills are pretty high.
Unfortunately that fact folds an irony into Todd Leopold’s generous curiosity. One can guess the once common American rye whiskeys made by Three Chamber Stills in ye olde days were indeed popular in the economically accessible sense. They were not the boutique whiskey that the Leopold Bros Three Chamber Rye is today.
That’s the backstory. How does it taste? Here we are, just over a week after uncorking and four pours into the bottle. These brief notes were taken using both Canadian and traditional Glencairns.
COLOR – a wide range of rusty oranges
NOSE – very forthcoming without being pushy, soft malt, a gentle array of dried herbs with lavender most prominent, then faint cinnamon sticks, caramel, buttered rye bread
TASTE – tangier than the nose, the dry malt and herb notes met with a bright juicy caramel and a splash of cream, everything awash in a light syrupy texture
FINISH – lingers gently but long, with the malt and rye bread, and now the lavender dipped in a crystalizing honey
OVERALL – gentle, easygoing, unhurried, layered, antique, pastoral
This is not a thinker so much as a contemplator. “Thinker” connotes for me a scrunched brow, sorting through data. But this rye is much more relaxed than that. The aromas waft forward effortlessly, compelling me to sit back, not forward. I’m tasting this on a sunny, very chilly afternoon. If it were warmer, I’d enjoy this glass out in the garden for a leisurely hour, to meditate on the whiskey’s flavors among the early winter backdrop of rusty browns and fading greens.
My tastes do lean darker than lighter. And so while I absolutely appreciate the dense subtleties of this rye, its overall pastel nature makes it less of a draw for me than more saturated whiskey experiences. If I’m going to pay this much, I want it to be for something more centered in my flavor profile.
That said, as I continue to sip while writing these notes, the aromas and flavors seem to gradually thicken and deepen. Earlier in the tasting the malt notes in the finish were a touch bitter. But they’re softening with time, mellowing into the syrupy texture of the whole. I’m curious if this shift in the glass will echo over the life of the bottle as well.
The combination of tasting experience and backstory has me reflecting on my recent time-hopping tour of San Francisco via the career of William “Cocktail Bill” Boothby, the prolific mixologist, author, and one-time California State Assemblyman, who served up cocktails and anecdotes from the 1890s on into Prohibition. Visiting the many sites of Boothby’s employ, I was struck anew by how San Francisco’s storied history is captured in its architecture. Just a single building, built and rebuilt over the decades, can reflect multiple eras and something of their values.
I was struck in particular by the attention to ornamental detail in the older buildings. The trims, the pillars, the banisters, the careful stacking of bricks and detailed geometric patterns of tiles and ironwork and glass. There is a particular care and craftsmanship virtually unheard of in architecture today.
I do appreciate certain modern design trends, with their clean lines and ascetic surfaces. These often convey a kind of detached calm—calming, but not necessarily warm or even inviting. The more ornate and detailed approaches of the past have a generous showmanship about them, a sense of celebratory panache and abundance.
This outward presentation reflects an attention to detail found inside as well. Even today, the bartenders I met at The Palace Hotel, the Fairmont, the St. Francis—all places Boothby tended bar—had a calm and civility to them. They were at once affable and discreet, accessible and reserved. Their balance of presence and distance was precise, like a diamond’s tip carefully chiseled to spread light without ever glaring. Very different than many bar and dining experiences today, where staff often sway between the poles of smothering and indifferent.
There’s nothing simple, certainly nothing inherently “better,” about the past. It is easy to romanticize it, sometimes dangerous to do so, and I certainly don’t wish to do that here. But something positive that the experiences of architecture and hospitality in my Boothby city tour provided me was to draw to my attention a time when people didn’t have ready access to such excess as we do now. There were no thrift stores with piles of designer clothes worn just a few times before being discarded. People in Boothby’s day owned one nice outfit, their single set of “Sunday clothes,” worn only to church, holiday and family celebrations, or the most important social occasions. These clothes were tailor made, utilitarian objects both practical and ornamental, and built to last. How much less waste there was then. How much greater attention to quality and to detail. To express gratitude, people sat down to write letters by hand, not text a 🙏🏻 while on the go between appointments.
The twenty-first century being how it is, a Leopold Bros simply can’t devote the time, attention, and care to making an elegant product like this Three Chamber Rye and not charge premium prices for it. Modern capitalism is simply not designed to support such considered endeavors in a way that allows them popularity in the financially-accessible sense.
So if this 2022 Three Chamber Rye is indeed how the average rye whiskey used to taste, the moment time travel gets perfected I’m closing my bank account, buying a one-way ticket to a hotel bar in 1900, and retiring there.
Until then, I’m going to use this experience as a personal reminder to offer my friends and family more care and panache, and to expect less in return. I’m not selling them anything, after all, so there’s no reason I can’t afford to do that. The gain will be something greater than money.