There is a certain mystique surrounding rye whiskey. Rye whiskey was at one time the predominant whiskey in the northeastern United States. Prohibition brought in competition from corn-based moonshine, Canadian 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.
With the resurgence of interest in cocktails, many drinkers are discovering that rye whiskey was the original ingredient in many classic cocktails, including the Sazarac 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. A bourbon can get lost in a mix of vermouth or absinthe. Of course, in a recent visit to an unnamed bar the bartender admitted that she didn’t even have any rye–and it wasn’t because she had just run out, either. I’m not going back to that place.
I decided to conduct a blind taste test of two well-regarded rye whiskeys. I took an old 80 proof bottle of Templeton Rye (batch 2, barrel 193, bottled in 2008) and (ri)1 Straight Rye Whiskey, from Jim Beam Distillery. The Jim Beam product comes in at 92 proof. In order to be fair, I provided my dutiful assistant two Glencarin snifters, each with a numbered post-it note on the bottom (face down). The bottles were poured outside of my vision and given to me after being moved around for good measure. In making my tasting notes I referred to each glass as the “left” or “right” glass.
The left glass struck me at first as being slightly milder than the right glass. It had the slight aroma that I can only describe as dried fruit In comparing it to the right glass it struck me as distinctly smoother. As the taste test drew on, it gathered some of that peppery harshness common to rye whiskeys. The left glass also struck me as somehow “heavier” in its flavor, though not in a bad way by any means.
The right glass was also fairly mild for a rye whiskey. I perceived more aromatics and an even fruitier aroma. The whiskey was also somehow “lighter.” It was smooth going down and had a more consistent but mild peppery taste. I could perceive what seemed to be more of an “alcohol” taste and aroma. However, the fruitiness carried through the entire sampling event.
Even before finding out which rye whiskey was which I was struck by the fact that they were both very smooth and mild for a rye whiskey. I also want to emphasize that these differences were very slight. When I was given the code to unmask each snifter, I was not surprised to find that the (ri)1 Straight Rye Whiskey was the one with more of an alcohol nose (the right glass). Perhaps because of the higher alcohol content, the (ri)1 Straight Rye Whiskey had more of a fruit nose. It also had a stronger peppery burn and was not as smooth as the left glass, which was the Templeton Rye. The Templeton Rye was the smoother of the two, but not by much. In my distilled opinion, what the Templeton Rye gained in smoothness, it lost slightly on the aromatics.
I can’t end this entry without also touching on the wildly different marketing efforts by the makers of Templeton Rye and Jim Beam’s (ri)1 Straight Rye Whiskey. Anybody in Iowa knows that Templeton Rye Spirits has launched a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” marketing campaign for its product. There are movie tie-ins, clothing, gear, traveling tents, tastings, twitter feeds, Facebook pages, blogs and newsletters. The only thing missing is any actual product on the shelves. Contrast this with Jim Beam’s marketing campaign for (ri)1. Nothing. Nada. No twitter, no web page, no Facebook, no tents, tie-ins, clothes or parties. You can’t even find the company’s product description on its own web page unless you do a lot of digging. Finding information on this fine rye whiskey is made even more difficult due to the fact that the company chose to use characters in the name that nobody even knows how to type and one of which cannot even be put on a web page. I mean, come on. How do I get the letter “i” with that little bar above it? And the superscript number 1? Don’t even ask. Even Jim Beam’s own webpage designer couldn’t figure that one out. Type in any variation of the name into their search bar on Jim Beam’s web page and you get nothing. In fact, they couldn’t even duplicate the bar above the i. They use a “î”. I can just imagine how the marketing meeting went down on the naming of this product — something out of a Dilbert cartoon no doubt. Sometimes, I am totally perplexed by marketing types. Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of any marketing effort whatsoever, you can always find this product on the shelves.
As a summary, I’d say that the two rye whiskeys are so close in taste that the casual drinker will be hard pressed to tell them apart. The Jim Beam product is fairly expensive in the stores, but since Templeton Rye is practically AWOL, it is a pretty good replacement until stocks increase. My goal is to re-run the test with Bulleit Rye and Redemption Rye. I’ve tried the Bulleit Rye and it strikes me as pretty powerful stuff, and it struck me as harsher than Templeton Rye or (ri)1 Rye, but until I taste them head to head in a taste test, I cannot fairly judge. Of course, my stock of Templeton Rye is getting so low that any more taste tests will have to wait until I’ve replenished the supply.