Booker’s Rye Review: The $300 Limited Edition Whiskey You Probably Won’t Be Able to Find

Bookers Rye

Ready for this? The numbers on the new Booker’s Rye limited edition, AKA “Big Time Batch,” are pretty staggering:

  • Booker’s Rye, the first ever from the brand, is 13 years old, plus one month and 12 days. Awesome.
  • Booker’s Rye is bottled uncut at 136 proof (plus 0.2). Love it.
  • Booker’s Rye costs a suggested $299.99 (plus whatever markup there might be to account for scarcity). Say what?

The obvious first question is – “so is it worth it?” The obvious second question is – “if so, could I even find it???” Sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t answer either of those questions for you. What I will answer are the more pedestrian questions of – “so how does it taste?” and “is it any good?” With that in hand, you are then free to hunt it down and determine if it’s worth breaking out your Amex Centurion card for.

Before that, a bit of crucial background info. This rye is a tribute to Booker Noe, the legend who served as longtime master distiller for the Beam brands and founded their Small Batch Bourbon Collection (including Booker’s Bourbon and Knob Creek). Put in the barrel back in 2003, the new Booker’s rye was among the “last barrels laid down” by Booker Noe in the final years of his life. Amazingly, Booker’s has never released a rye in all those subsequent years. According to Booker’s son Fred, current master distiller:

Dad saw the difficult, temperamental rye grain as a challenge – small, but tricky to work with – and he never backed down from a challenge. So, in 2003, he went big and laid down barrels of a rye whiskey in his favorite rack house – creating the first ever Booker’s Rye Whiskey… Barreled as a small batch late in Dad’s life, Booker’s Big Time Rye is a rare, limited-edition rye whiskey that won’t come around again any time soon…  and I’m proud to release it in his honor this May.”

Without further ado:

40235_BookersRyeBottleBoxShotcopy Booker’s Rye, 2016 Limited Edition, “Big Time Batch”
136.2 Proof, uncut (and unfiltered), approx. $300 retail
Tasting Dates: May 26, 2016 – May 27, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: WOW*

Tasting Notes & Review:

Right away, the burnt orange/amber color of this whiskey conveys considerable age. A sniff of this heady stuff confirms it – loads of vanilla and toasty oak, an undertone of thin wintergreen wrapped in dark chocolate. The 136 proof is pretty well in check, and thankfully there’s nothing to suggest that this rye is over the hill – 13 years seems like it was just right.

Sipping neat, that high proof hits your tongue with a searing burn, but the burn quickly turns to pleasure, and that pleasure goes on and on in a loooong warm finish. There’s plenty of cinnamon apple, more vanilla, brown sugar – this is one hot-out-of-the-oven-dessert of a rye whiskey. For the high proof fans out there, this will really hit the spot – with great depth of flavors, good harmony, and a quick but measured alcohol punch to the gut.

Over a cube of ice, the aromas from the Booker’s Rye become more elegant, more refined, with plum fruit emerging from the vanilla and oak. And, wow, the intense burn is gone, replaced with a much more lush and full-bodied embrace.  The plum notes carry onto the palate, now like a plum and apple spiced cobbler. The finish is still long, though more subtle than when served neat, with the fruit jumping to the front alongside the cinnamon. It feels a touch more bourbon than rye, actually, but if you look for the rye spice, it’s certainly there in the background.

If you ask me, a single cube of ice is the way to go with this. You start sipping right away before the ice dilutes and you get the full power of the 136 proof. Within a minute, the ice brings down that brute force and smooths things out. Just don’t put too much ice in there, because this is a whiskey you’ll want to linger over – and bringing that high proof down too much would be a shame.

Fantastic stuff from Booker’s. Yep, I’m giving it a rare WOW rating. Would I plonk down $300 to buy a bottle? Personally, probably not; but if you’re the kind of person who has the ability and desire to spend that kind of cash on good whiskey, you’re not likely to regret it.

Unfortunately, Booker’s Rye is quite rare, so good luck tracking down a bottle. And all indications are that this will not be a recurring release. If you happen to track down a taste, look to the heavens and thank Booker Noe for his foresight some thirteen years ago.

* 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

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Booker’s. Photos courtesy Booker’s.

Drink Local: Atlanta Distilleries

This week, I wrote a roundup for Creative Loafing of the four Atlanta distilleries now operating. Between Old Fourth Distillery, ASW Distillery, Independent Distilling Company in Decatur, and Lazy Guy Distilling up in Kennesaw, you can now stock a bar with Atlanta-made bourbon, vodka, gin, rum, corn whiskey, and more. Pretty amazing considering we had exactly NONE of that just a couple years ago. DRINK LOCAL, y’all!

I’d encourage fans of spirits and cocktails to visit all four of these distilleries, as all are up to interesting things, and their stills are all absolutely gorgeous (and all different). Below are some of my favorite outtakes, to give you a feel for the beauty in the stills. Also, be sure to check out Thirsty South’s full list of Georgia distilleries (not just Atlanta) and what they are producing.

Do check out the Creative Loafing roundup for more info, or comment below with any questions.

Old Fourth Distillery:
Old Fourth Distillery
Old Fourth Distillery

ASW Distillery:
ASW DistilleryASW Distillery

Independent Distilling Company:
Independent Distilling Decatur
Independent Distilling Decatur Independent Distilling Decatur
Independent Distilling Decatur

Lazy Guy Distilling:
Lazy Guy Distilling
Lazy Guy Distilling
Lazy Guy Distilling

Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye: Review and Tasting Notes

Hochstädters Vatted Rye Whiskey

Let’s hit this. Five facts about Hohchstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey, followed by a review and tasting notes.

  1. This rye hails from Cooper Spirits Co. – the company that unleashed St. Germain upon the world. It should also be noted that these are the folks behind the eclectic portfolio that includes:
    1. Lock Stock & Barrel, the well-regarded (sourced Canadian) 13 year old straight rye whiskey
    2. Slow and Low, the bottled “Rock and Rye” cocktail that clocks in at 84 proof and is made with sourced rye, orange peel, and raw Pennsylvania honey
    3. Creme Yvette, the super-geeky liqueur from France with a long history of being used in super-geeky cocktails (which of these three is not like the others?)
  2. It’s the first rye officially designated as “vatted” (eh, marketing speak, but I dig the fact that they are relatively open that this is a blend of several sourced ryes)
  3. It is composed of five ryes ranging from 4 to 15 year old, from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alberta, Canada, all “hand selected” by distiller Robert Cooper. At least we know that much.
  4. It’s 100 proof. Great for cocktails.
  5. It’s only $35. Which amounts to a darn good price point for rye these days.

So, interesting right? Blended rye, 100 proof, good price. Let’s give it a shot.

Hochstadter's Rye Whiskey VattedHochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey
100 Proof, Approx. $35 retail
Tasting Dates: Feb 12 – 15, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

Digging in to the nose here, a dark cherry sweetness jumps out, almost like you’ve thrown a Luxardo cherry into an Old Fashioned. I’d say it leans a bit more bourbon than rye – a mellow sweetness, warm spices, a bit of toasty wood – but there is a subtle rye spice buzzing in the background. It’s mellower and sweeter than a Rittenhouse Rye, for example (another well-priced 100 proofer).

Sipping neat, the heat comes out quickly. There’s a red hot cinnamon-y burst that comes on strong and stays through a very long finish. The dry spice of the rye comes through as well, but frankly this begs for water, ice, or some vermouth.

With a touch of water, the nose lightens up, some orange peel notes come out – sandalwood? Is that too obvious? In any case, it’s less dark cherry and more blood orange with the water under its belt. And it’s much improved for sipping, too, as the heat and cinnamon comes in check, and the rye bread character emerges a bit more. Not bad at all, but I wouldn’t put this in the same league as a Rendezvous Rye (from High West, around $50) where the older rye in the blend (which is 16 years old and 6 years old) has a more obvious and distinctive presence. The vatting approach here definitely produces a harmonious result, but not one with the depth of character that I was hoping for.

As for the standard test of any rye for cocktail-making – it does great in a Manhattan. Not too sweet, not too spicy, not too strong (but sweet, spicy, and strong enough alongside the sweet vermouth). I’m kinda digging this more than Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (though I must admit that I’m not as thrilled with current-day Rittenhouse as much as I was with the Brown-Forman-produced version that was around until early 2015).

Hochstadter’s Vatted is a good rye, an interesting approach to blending, a well-priced rye, and a good rye for cocktails. But don’t expect it to knock your socks off sipping neat.

By the way, Hochstadter’s rye has distribution in 17 states, though is still jumping through the regulatory hoops of actually getting it onto shelves in some of those – including Georgia. In the meantime, try your maybe-not-favorite online reseller.


* 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

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Cooper Spirits Co.


Crown Royal? Yes, Crown Royal. Northern Harvest Rye and Monarch Whisky

Crown Royal Rye and Monarch

I’ll admit it. I wrote off Crown Royal long ago. I wouldn’t quite turn the stuff down, but seek it out? No chance. That cheesy purple velvet bag? That ostentatious golden crown? The fact that they have a “Regal Apple” apple flavored whisky? The fact that they’re from Canada!? But I also have to admit… Jim Murray’s absurd proclamation caught my eye.

What proclamation you may ask? (unless you’re a hardcore whisky geek, in which case you already know where this is going.) Well, Jim Murray is pretty widely regarded as a leading expert in the world of whisky. He is also well-known for making attention-mongering proclamations. And this year, it was his surely-intentionally-shocking singling out of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as “World Whisky of the Year” that mongered attention. That’s right. A Canadian rye. From Crown Royal. World Whisky of the Year. Beating out Scotland and America and every other country that is not the home of poutine. Now, I had no expectation that this particular Canadian whisky was really the world’s best anything, but I was intrigued enough that I had to try it. Jim Murray’s shenanigans got my attention.

Being Crown Royal, the Northern Harvest Rye is widely available, and if not quite jumping off the shelves, selling at a pretty good clip thanks to the publicity. Its understated beige velvet bag is a nicely subdued alternative to the regal purple found wrapping up regular Crown Royal. And Murray’s proclamation wasn’t totally undeserved based on other industry insiders’ reviews – the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye also recently earned a Gold Medal and an Award of Excellence (no idea what that means) at the Canadian Whisky Awards. (The competition’s overall winner was Lot 40 Rye Whisky, of which I’m a fan.)

I also started digging a bit more into what Crown Royal was up to, and – amid the furor over Murray’s news – found several folks in-the-know singling out Crown Royal’s limited 75th Anniversary release called Monarch as an even better whisky. Sure enough, come December (yes, I’m behind on writing this up), Whisky Advocate named the Crown Royal Monarch as their Canadian Whisky of the Year. The Monarch, which actually first came out back in 2014, also won a Gold Medal at that year’s Canadian Whisky Awards. The only problem was – the Monarch (unlike the Northern Harvest Rye) was in very low supply and hard to track down. Luckily, I stumbled upon some bottles while I was on vacation – at a bargain price ($40) to boot.

So, how are they? Is the Northern Harvest Rye really a world-beater? Is the Monarch enough to change your perceptions of Crown Royal forever? On to the review and tasting notes…

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, Blended Canadian Whisky
90 Proof, Approx. $30 Retail (though I’ve seen everything from $25 – $50)
Tasting Dates: Dec. 2015 – Jan. 20, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff 

OK, Jim Murray. This is a fine rye. A fine example of Canadian rye. But “World Whiskey of the Year”? Give me a break.

First off – what exactly is this? Crown Royal says it is 90% rye. Canadian winter rye at that. The same rye that is a blending component in regular Crown Royal. How long is it aged? I have no idea. They’re not saying.

Now to the nose – which has a touch of wood, a bit of trademark rye sharpness, a touch of minty wintergreen, a bit of clove, and then a very prominent fruity note that reminds me of strawberries that have been sitting in balsamic – both bright and deep. In a similar vein, hints of Beaujolais-like notes pop in and out – fruity, juicy stuff. This is definitely not bourbon, and definitely not a typical (MGP) American rye, either.

On the palate – this Crown Royal stands apart from the regular stuff, though it does carry a similar thick and smooth mouthfeel. As some Canadian ryes tend to be, it is quite fruity, though the wood and cinnamon notes are more pronounced now than they were on the nose, as the mint fades to the background. The finish, to me, is a bit shorter and sharper than I’d like to see, especially given the Crown Royal pedigree. That said, it doesn’t feel either too young or too old, managing to convey a good bit of depth without going overboard.

A touch of water does nicely, bringing out some caramel and pulling the disjointed sharpness back into check. Ice makes it smoother and sweeter still, though interestingly brings out some dill notes on the nose, too, that some may find bothersome. Personally, I’d skip the ice – as it manages to call out the sharpness in the finish in an unpleasant way, and amps up that balsamic sweetness at the same time.

As for its use in cocktails, I find the Northern Harvest Rye to be a bit too… peculiar, in a distracting way. The fruitiness in particular detracts in a Manhattan, though I’m sure a good bartender could figure out a better use for this Canadian rye. And, if you can find this for $30, I do think it’s worth giving a shot to experience an interesting (if not world’s-best) Canadian rye.

Crown Royal MonarchCrown Royal Monarch, 75th Anniversary Blended Canadian Whiskey
80 Proof, Approx. $60 Retail (though I’ve seen everything from $40 – $70)
Tasting Dates: Jan. 1 – Jan. 20, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent

This limited release was meant to harken back to some of the early versions of Crown Royal. Crown Royal pulled from their stocks of aged whisky – “including a special whisky from the historic Coffey rye still, residing in Gimli, Manitoba.”

Again, no age statement or particulars. So it’s up to the tasting. On the nose, this is clearly an older, more elegant expression of what Crown Royal can be. There’s a bit of dark oak, and a prominent nutty character mixed with baking spaces – think pecan and nutmeg -with a hint of burnt orange peel. Lovely stuff.

On the palate, now this is getting really good – layers and layers of flavor, rolling over and over on the tongue. The nutty notes are dialed down from the nose, the dark brown sugar is there but very much in the background, and a toasty grain character (less rye than barley or even wheat to me) comes through, especially in the warm, long finish. There’s certainly rye in there, but it pops up in spots rather than dominating the taste. And there’s a dark berry fruitiness as well, but not nearly as prominent as in the Northern Harvest Rye. This is blended whisky done right.

Water? No. Doesn’t need it. Ice? Well, now this is interesting. Add a cube or two of ice and this starts to really loosen up, reminiscent of an orange blossom sweet tea on a hot day – smooth and refreshing. If you want to be contemplative, stick with a neat pour. If you want something deeply enjoyable, add some ice to make for a guilty pleasure. This is, to my tastes, leagues above that “world whisky of the year” – so if you can find a bottle, grab it. I wish I had taken more than the one bottle I did. But I bet Crown Royal will continue to offer some similarly interesting expressions over the years to come. I’ll be watching.


* 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

Full Disclosure: Tasting sample of the Northern Harvest Rye was provided by Crown Royal.

FEW Spirits: A few quick notes


FEW Spirits, out of the great city of Chicago (well, Evanston, to be exact), has won boatloads of awards and received a good bit of acclaim as one of America’s leading craft distillers. Their rye whiskey was awarded Whisky Advocate’s Craft Whiskey of the Year in 2013, and their bourbon and barrel-aged gin join the rye with gold medals from the Beverage Testing Institute (if awards are your kinda thing). This spring, FEW expanded their distribution to include Georgia (and a few other states, they’re now up to 20 plus Washington D.C., and a handful of countries outside the U.S.), and sent me a few samples to get to know them better. Having spent a good amount of time in Chicago previously, I was well aware of FEW, but it was good to revisit their four main products.

The coolest thing about FEW is that they really make an effort to keep their production locally rooted – sourcing as much of their grains as possible from within 100 miles of the distillery, where they do all the fermentation, distillation, aging and bottling on-site. They famously grow the Cascade hops used in their American Gin in founder/distiller Paul Hletko’s own backyard. Herewith, some quick thoughts on their two primary whiskeys (one bourbon, one rye) and two primary gins (one regular, one barrel-aged). The rye, in particular, stands out to me as an excellent craft spirit worth seeking out. Oh, and don’t you love those photos up above? They come courtesy of FEW’s website, which also features a number of cocktail recipes for each spirit when you’re ready to play.

FEW_American_Gin1FEW American Gin
80 proof, Approx. $40 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff* 

Interestingly, FEW’s American Gin is made from a wheated bourbon mash (70% corn, 20% wheat, 10% malted barley), with an intentional focus on the grains. They also include Cascade hops in the botanical blend and whole vanilla beans, plus more typical gin botanicals like juniper, bitter orange and lemon peel. Mild at first, with notes that may have you thinking … “vodka?” … before some interesting hints of green lemongrass and waxy vanilla seep in. Again, it’s mild when you first taste it, but you can pick up the subtle presence of the corn and grains, then a lingering acidic tingle with a juniper base finally jumps in on the lovely finish. This one grew on me and benefits from some air – and will do nicely in cocktails that call for a mild-mannered gin or as an introductory offer to any gin-averse friends.

FEW_Barrel_Gin1FEW Barrel Gin
93 proof, Approx. $50 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff (approaching Excellent)*

FEW’s Barrel Gin actually uses a more neutral base than the American Gin (distilled to a higher proof and thus less grain presence coming through), and is also flavored with different botanicals to better harmonize with the barrel-aging. It goes roughly  6 to 9 months in a combo of new oak and FEW’s used bourbon and rye barrels. With just a whiff, this is much more intriguing than the American Gin, and – to me at least – you get both more of a gin/juniper presence AND the effects of the barrel also emerge in notes of warm sandalwood. Also on the nose, there’s a bit of lemon Pledge (in a good way!) and tropical fruit… think grilled pineapple. Sipping the aged gin also shows a nice layering of flavor, fairly rich and lush, with a lovely waft of floral notes coming in and out. The wood remains in the background, warm but subtle, and again the finish has a nice lingering juniper character that really shines.

FEW_Bourbon_WhiskeyFEW Bourbon Whiskey
93 proof, Approx. $50 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Fair* 

FEW’s bourbon mash bill is 70% corn, 20% rye, 10%  malted barley, and is fermented with a beer yeast that FEW says helps bring out some spice notes. No age statement, but it’s generally between two and three years. Give this a bit of air, too, to fully open up. The nose is quite nice, with some maple syrup, sawdust, and plenty of corn silk and that malt presence. Sipping, though, it comes across very young, in a not entirely pleasant way if you’re not a fan of young whiskies. I have a feeling this would really benefit from another couple years in the barrel, but as it stands, would have a hard time choosing this over much cheaper bourbons from larger distillers.

FEW_Rye_Whiskey1FEW Rye Whiskey
93 proof, Approx. $65 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

The rye mashbill is 70% rye, 20% corn, 10% malted barley, and is fermented with a Loire Valley wine yeast that FEW says brings out fruity notes. The nose on this rye is super interesting, some cinnamon, deep juicy plum, clove and baking spice swirling around in a heady ethereal way. There’s a fascinating richness to it that is almost moving into Port territory. Sipping neat, more complexity still, a deep grape quality, a touch of sharp mint, and a background buzz of Christmas spice that builds on the finish. I’d love to see this one with a bit more barrel time as well (it’s also under four years), but it’s in a great place. My favorite of all the four FEW spirits tasted.

UPDATE (8/18/2015): Someone had asked what FEW’s barrel approach was on the bourbon and rye, so here’s a response from FEW’s PR manager, Jason Horn: “We’re actually using a mix of barrel sizes from quarter-cask up to the standard 53-gallon barrels. Paul blends different size casks of different ages together to get the flavor he’s looking for. In recent years, we’ve been moving toward a higher and higher proportion of the 53-gallon barrels, but it is still a mix.”


* 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

Full Disclosure: Tasting samples provided by FEW.