Following up on a battle of two exemplary wheated bourbons, we now bring you… BATTLE RYE! My “catch” of the year in 2011 was securing a prized bottle of the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. One bottle. It’s not easy to come by. I’ve been able to try this rye on a few occasions in the past, each time walking away swearing it was the best I ever had. The Van Winkle Family Reserve is labeled “13 years old,” but rumors abound (actually, confirmed by Julian Van Winkle III) that the actual time in the barrel was quite a bit longer. Word is that the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye was actually put into tank (to stop the aging process) at 18 or 19 years of age back in 2005 or so, and was sourced from a combination of long gone Medley rye and Cream of Kentucky rye. The art is in the blending, the selecting, the determination on when to stop aging. Whatever it is, my various tastings of it have confirmed that it is a tremendous spirit and among the best ryes available anywhere.
As for a worthy competitor… Sazerac 18 is the obvious choice (and may be of common provenance), but I also think that a few of the ryes out of High West are up to the task. High West’s 21 year old rye is monumental, akin to Pappy 23 in what those last few years of aging do to transform the whiskey into something altogether magical, but, alas, I don’t have any more of that around (and it is quite a bit more expensive). I do have a bottle of High West Rendezvous Rye, though, which is a blend of 6 year old and 16 year old ryes – putting the average somewhere near Van Winkle’s labeled (though not true) age of 13 years old – and priced not too far off the Van Winkle price. Fortuitously for comparison sake, the High West Rendezvous and the Van Winkle Family Reserve also have similar proofs – 92 and 95.6 proof, respectively.
High West sourced their 16 year old rye component from Barton stock, with an 80% rye mashbill, and their 6 year old rye from LDI, with a 95% rye mashbill. I’m just about sick of seeing LDI rye pop up under various guises lately, but they do turn out a pretty good product, and have somehow managed to maintain inventory levels at a healthy enough rate to supply all these various bottlings.
Here are my notes on an epic battle rye:
High West Whiskey Rendezvous, A Blend of Straight Rye Whiskies
Batch No. 41, Bottle No. 446
Approx. $42 Retail
Golden honey color. Powerful but elegant nose, honeysuckle and mint/menthol and Bit-O-Honey, with mellow green wood underneath and just a hint of smokiness – not peaty, but reminiscent of an elegant single malt Scotch. A bit of butter rum, touches of honeyed Sauternes. Intoxicating stuff, manages to be highly feminine and seductive yet still with some muscle, like a dancer leaping into the air.
Tasted neat, the Rendezvous kicks in with a nice burn, tingling on the tongue, layers of that menthol and lightly burnt caramel and anise. The texture is pleasantly lightly syrupy, permeating the taste buds. The green wood appears on the midpalate, and the rye spice and that hint of smoke come on more strongly in the finish. A few drops of water does lighten it up a bit, but to my tastes does not do it any favors – I prefer this one on its own, dancing at full strength.
Excellent stuff – worth the tariff, not to be encumbered in cocktails.
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, 13 Years Old
Approx. $50 Retail
The additional age on this is apparent – much deeper copper color than the Rendezvous. Thicker texture, too, clings to the glass like a thin maple syrup. The nose is deeper as well, more wood, more spice, more brown sugar, all in check. Cinnamon emerges in subtle bursts on top of toasted pecans, is that a dark chocolate covered cherry passing by? Maybe a juicy purple grape? It’s hard to pin down what makes this exceptional, other than the fact that it is just so harmonious and builds and builds and builds, then segues into something slightly different but just as wonderful.
On the tongue, the Van Winkle definitely has more presence, more chewiness. Again, neat is the way to go. The spice comes in quickly here, not quite cinnamon, not quite allspice or nutmeg, not quite mint, not quite pepper, but somewhere in between all that. Dark brown sugar, vanilla and figs and toasty wood follow, and a sweet rye spice burn carries on through to a long deep finish. The long time in the barrel does seem to impart a more bourbon-y profile than the High West, but this is still definitively rye. I do get toasted pecans again at the tail end of this (not sure why I’m picking up that note on both of these – maybe because I was cooking with toasted pecans a few nights ago). Where the Rendezvous is a lovely dance partner, the Van Winkle is a warm leather coach that embraces you.
Maybe I’m a sucker for the Van Winkle mystique, but this shouts WOW to me as much as the Pappy 15. Amazing stuff. If you see it, grab it before it’s gone.
* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck