Rye Battle: Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye vs. High West Rendezvous

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
92 Proof
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
No. B0198
95.6 Proof
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

16 Replies to “Rye Battle: Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye vs. High West Rendezvous”

  1. Jealous that you were able to procure a bottle of Van Winkle Rye. I’ve had the 15 and 20 year, but would really like to try the rye. The Rendezvous is very good. Don’t tell anyone but I made an Old Fashioned with it and it was spectacular. Another rye I would recommend giving a try is Willett Straight Rye 4 year old. Great sipper.

  2. The Family Reserve Rye was the first Van Winkle Product I was ever able to acquire (after much begging and pleading.) It was worth the groveling.

    For a while it was the only rye in my bar, until I got the Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond. Obviously, the Rittenhouse doesn’t compare, by a long shot.

    I did acquire a bottle of 2011 Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, but I haven’t cracked it open to compare just yet. Somehow, I doubt it’ll compare to the Van Winkle; even at cask strength.

    Any thoughts on THH-Sazerac versus Van Winkle?

    1. At least you were able to find a bottle of Family Reserve for which to grovel! I have to drive 80 miles one-way just to get a bottle of
      Rittenhouse Rye 100. I may never know for myself how good the Van Winkle Rye is, but I do know that the Rittenhouse Rye 100 is the best Rye Bargain out there and makes one outstanding Manhattan!!

  3. The Canton Street whiskey crew also scored one bottle of the Pappy Rye (with great effort and even greater expense — $50 in your dreams). Taste tested it against the High West 21 and the Hirsch 25 yr old Rye. All three were delicious and very different. Personal taste drove the individual favorites and scores but all three are winners — like comparing unicorns. Nice to see Rye a part of the afternoon whiskey taste offs. I’ll drink any of these anytime.

  4. I am sipping on some George T Staggs, neat ,wondering how something so strong can taste so mild. Defies the laws of physics.
    I have had one bottle of Pappy rye. Excellent stuff. I drank it another time in NOLA.
    The Thomas Handy I have had the pleasure of drinking many times over the years. Now it is very difficult to acquire.
    Even though I am crazy about the Pappy 15 Bourbon my nod goes to the Handy rye over the Pappy Rye.
    It is almost like saying would you like to have any type of sex twice a week or one type twice as often.
    Who is able to choose?

  5. Had all of the above mentioned and in my book, Thomas Handy takes the cake. Beautiful nose, superbly mellow and flavorful with a finish that just won’t quit. Very much my favorite Rye…catch it if you can

  6. In the mid-sixties, I tended bar at Win Schuler’s Restaurant in Michigan. The Bar Brands were Popov Vodka, Barclay Gin, Bacardi Rum, Jim Beam Bourbon and Cream of Kentucky Blended Whiskey. We used Tribuno Vermouth.

  7. I have tried the pappy 15 but not the rye. I had the pleasure of trying the Thomas Handy and it was outstanding! I am not on the hunt for a Thomas Handy as my taste was at a whiskey bar here in Portland, The Old Gold.

  8. Have searched on wine-searcher for this 13 yr Van Winkle and am coming up with $600 as the lowest price in the USA. Type in the original post?

    1. Paul, well, two years ago it was still possible ( though not easy) to find the VWFRR for $50. I bought that bottle in the 2011 release, off the shelf! Amazing how things have changed.

Comments welcome, y'all!