There is a certain mystique surrounding rye whiskey. I get the impression that some see Rye as a poor step child of Bourbon which is an even poorer step child of Scotch whisky. These are all incorrect assumptions of course. Rye whiskey was at one time the predominant whiskey in the northeastern United States. It was popular because rye grew best in those states. Bourbon was made with the corn that grew well in the Ohio river valley. Consequently, it was popular up and down the Mississippi, where it was shipped by boat to river port destinations. In fact, most of the original cocktails used as the main ingredient Rye Whiskey, not Bourbon, and certainly not Scotch. Prohibition brought in competition from sweet corn-based moonshine, Canadian whiskey (at that time a mostly rye whiskey) and Scotch whisky. Following the repeal of prohibition, tastes had changed and Americans favored the milder taste of Scotch and Bourbon. The popularity of vodka was to come much later, beginning in the 1960s. Rye whiskey never really recovered its pre-prohibition popularity and its unique taste was considered harsh and unforgiving. That is unfortunate as it is probably the preeminent ingredient in a classic cocktail.
With the resurgence of interest in cocktails, many drinkers are discovering that rye whiskey was the original ingredient in classic cocktails such as the Sazerac and Manhattan. In my opinion, rye makes a better base for a good cocktail as it imparts some sharper flavors that can cut through the added ingredients, especially some of the sweeter concoctions common to earlier recipes. A bourbon can get lost in a mix of sugar, vermouth or absinthe.
For this taste test we assembled two rye whiskeys with Iowa connections: Windmill Rye Whiskey and Templeton Rye. We added to the match newcomer Redemption Rye, and two heavyweights from Kentucky, Russell’s Reserve, and Jim Beam’s (ri)1 Rye Whiskey. The taste test involved numbering each glass and having a third party take note of which drink was matched with each number, and pour each into a Glencairn snifter glass. The first glass was a mix of all of the different rye whiskeys so that no one whiskey would set the palate. My notes are marked with “D.O.” and Our Man in Omaha’s notes are marked with “M.O.” After the notes were complied we had our assistant reveal the identities of each whiskey.
Here is a run-down of each of the contenders:
Windmill Rye Whiskey
Mississippi River Distilling Company
Until very recently, the only rye that is distilled, aged, and bottled in Iowa is Windmill Rye from Mississippi River Distilling Company in Le Claire, Iowa. The only other Iowa-distilled rye whiskey is also from Mississippi River Distilling Company and is called “Cody Road Rye Whiskey.” This whiskey was released too recently to be included in our taste test, which is unfortunate. Windmill Rye Whiskey is the product of a 100% rye mash bill. It is not known how the rye is efficiently fermented without malted barley, but according to some research, it is apparently possible to malt rye as rye does contain some enzymes. The rye in this Windmill Rye is grown in Illinois and milled by volunteers at the De Immigrant Windmill in Fulton, Illinois. Only 3,200 bottles were produced as part of MRDC’s seasonal product line. The rye is aged over charred oak and finished in used bourbon barrels. I’ve spotted the rye at several Des Moines area retail locations. It is apparent that Windmill Rye has not been aged for very long, given its light yellow color. This proved problematic in our little test.
Owner: Templeton Rye Spirits, Inc.
Templeton Rye Whiskey, called “The Good Stuff,” is bottled in Templeton, Iowa. Part of the publicity for this whiskey includes a lot of references to a prohibition-era recipe and stories that Al Capone considered it one of his favorite drinks. The mash bill is not known, but is estimated by some pundits as having at least 95% rye. The distillery that makes this rye lists its standard rye mash bill as 95% rye and 5% malt. Templeton Rye has a devoted following all around the country and especially here in Iowa. If I am in a different state and talking to a bartender or liquor salesperson they never fail to remark about the insane popularity of Templeton Rye when I tell them I am from Iowa.
(ri)1 Straight Rye Whiskey
Jim Beam Global Products
Jim Beam Distillery.
unknown mash bill
Blend of different ages, minimum 4.5 years
Apparently this is pronounced “rye one,” though you would never know it given the ridiculous name that Jim Beam bestowed on this whiskey. Finding information about this rye is equally befuddling as the company makes you drill down through endless menu choices to find a short page with nothing more than an age statement and some statements about the bottle shape.
Lawrenceburg Distillers, Indiana
Bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky by Bardstown Barrel Selections
Owner: Dynamic Beverages
95% rye mashbill
Aged over two years
This is another one of those whiskeys that is distilled by a large distillery, in this case the old Lawrenceburg Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, (now MGP) aged by unknown parties (probably LDI, but I am only guessing) and then bottled under contract and sold under a brand name. The mash bill for Redemption matches the standard LDI mash bill. I won’t name names, but there are several other well-known rye whiskeys that are made in this same distillery, using the same exact mash bill. However, it is not altogether clear where they are aged as I’ve seen some references to other warehouses in the literature of other LDI ryes. Those other LDI-distilled ryes are sold under completely different names, for very different prices, and with very different back stories. Well, the test is in the tasting and not the publicity, so we will see how this one fares.
Russell’s Reserve 6 year old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
Wild Turkey Distillery
Owner: Nichols Distilling Co., Lawrenceburg, Ky
Aged for 6 years.
Official information about this rye by the distiller is hard to find. A “lost page” on their website indicates that Reserve Rye is aged a minimum of six years and is a “collaboration between Jimmy & Eddie Russell, bringing over 80 years of experience to this small batch rye whiskey.” That is it. I’m guessing that they are having trouble marketing anything other than bourbon given that the Wild Turkey name means bourbon to most folks.
During the sampling process we discovered that the Russell’s Reserve Bottle was chilled, so we unfortunately knocked it out of the competition as that might not be fair to that whiskey. All was not lost as we decided to match the Russel’s Reserve against whatever rye won this round of taste test. See the next installment of this taste test.
Redemption Rye: (Glass 2):
D.O.: Starts out with a stout, non-sweet aroma. Changes to cinnamon and sugar. Not much alcohol punch. Has a classic rye bite, but is fairly smooth. Not much burn.
M.O.: Nose has a high note that struck me immediately as sawdust. It tastes like it smells: sweet sawdust.
Templeton Rye: (Glass 1):
D.O.: Cinnamon on first whiff, followed by a stout, oak notes and an increase in alcohol. Some more wood and oak on the backside.
M.O.: Very smooth oaky nose. Old forest smell with not much alcohol vapor. Taste: Very bold, strong and stayed on the tongue for quite some time. Browner, darker oakier finish with some bitterness.
MRDC Windmill Rye (Glass 3):
D.O.: Aroma is floral, with no cinnamon. Low alcohol, not really a classic rye taste, more of plastic smell and taste.
M.O.: Sharp, like pine. High notes with pine needles, sweet and sugary, sticking to the sides of my mouth.
(ri)1 Straight Rye Whiskey (Glass 4)
D.O.: Dark and not as sweet-smelling. More alcohol. Burns on the way down. Very strong peppery flavor.
M.O.: On first taste, mellow, more full-bodied nose. Kind of like smell of new plastic. Sharp and cutting, a lot of alcohol. End notes are chocolate cake.
AND THE WINNER IS: Templeton Rye*. After we finished our notes we voted on which rye was our favorite. The unanimous vote was glass 1, the Templeton Rye. Because the Russell’s Reserve had been taken out of the consideration, we are noting the result with an asterisk. A final tally isn’t really fair unless it was given its due opportunity, so check out Part 2 where we match Templeton Rye against the Russell’s Reserve. We agreed that the Templeton Rye had everything you could ask for in a mellow but tasty rye whiskey. It had the classic rye bite without having too much of the “plastic” or “pine” notes that we perceived in (ri)1 and MRDC Windmill Rye. It just beat out Redemption Rye in every category, though I’d say that Redemption was not a bad rye whiskey at all. It sort of tasted like a 3 year old Templeton Rye, if there is such a thing.
End Notes: The MRDC was not really ready for prime time. The color of the whiskey gave it away, actually. It was close to the color of a pale ale. Since the rye could not have been distilled much more than a year and a half before it was bottled (the distillery didn’t start up until December, 2010), it could not have spent much time in barrels with a bottling date of January 23, 2012. By all rights the Redemption Rye and Templeton should have tasted very similar, given certain similarities in their (assumed) identical mash bill and other factors. However, The Templeton Rye benefits greatly from what appears to be additional aging. In contrast, the (ri)1 from the Beam organization loses some of its oak and flavor due to the higher alcohol content and, possibly, a shorter aging time. I should note that about a year ago I tested this same bottle of (ri)1 against an old batch 2 Templeton Rye and we felt in that test that the (ri)1 was the superior product. Either that Batch 2 had lost some of its flavor over time or it did not spend as much time in the barrel as the batch 5. Finally, it amazes me that the big Kentucky distillers still do not know how to publicize their own products on the internet. First, even the name (ri)1 makes no sense and is almost impossible to remember or index properly, given how the name includes punctuation. And then if you go to the distiller’s web page you will find nothing about the product. Wild Turkey’s Russell’s Reserve Rye is a similar story. The name is easy enough to remember, but there is absolutely no information about this product on their web page.
I do plan on pitting Templeton Rye against MRDC’s Cody Road Rye to see how that other Iowa rye fares.