Pikesville Rye and Rittenhouse Rye: Review and Tasting Notes


Here’s the big news first – Heaven Hill has a new rye whiskey out that’s essentially an older, higher proof version of the beloved Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond. This new one is six years old (at least) and 110 proof, rather than four years old and 100 proof. Wow, what’s not to love about that? Heaven Hill has time and time again put their amazing bank of great, aged whiskey to excellent use, and there’s no reason to think this won’t be another home run along the lines of the their Elijah Craig barrel proof releases.

DSC_1129Where this gets a bit confusing, though, is with the label. This new rye is not a Rittenhouse – rather, it is called Pikesville. Pikesville is also the name used on a younger (three year), lower proof (80), regional rye brand from Heaven Hill. Both of these Pikesville whiskeys share roots going back to a Maryland brand that originated way back in the 1890’s and was acquired by Heaven Hill in 1982. Neither of these Pikesville whiskeys should have anything to do with Rittenhouse Rye. But they do. Got all that?

Heaven Hill is careful to make clear that they produce Pikesville in Kentucky. And remember how I said this was essentially an older, higher proof Rittenhouse? Sure enough, Heaven Hill has confirmed that Pikesville (a self-proclaimed Maryland-style rye) and Rittenhouse (a self-proclaimed Pennsylvania-style rye) are indeed the same mash bill (51% rye, 39% corn, 10% malted barley). So it goes… as long as they taste good, who am I to quibble with the distinctions between a Maryland-style and Pennsylvania-style when they’re both actually made in Kentucky and are essentially siblings of each other?

The new Pikesville rye has started rolling out in select markets, and will be seeing national distribution this fall. Rather than just taste it on its own, I decided to do a side by side with the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond. While Rittenhouse doesn’t carry an age statement, word is that it’s basically four year old whiskey, so the Pikesville has roughly two years of extra time in the barrel on it. Heaven Hill has also said that Pikesville’s barrels have been carefully chosen from a more specific section of the rick houses than what Rittenhouse is pulling from. So here we go – a four year old, Pennsylvania-style rye and six year old Maryland-style rye, both made in Kentucky – head to head.

DSC_1136Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whiskey
100 Proof, Approx. $24 Retail
Tasting Dates: June 15 – July 17, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff 

First off, I want to point out that this is the Rittenhouse that was distilled by Heaven Hill (D.S.P. KY 1 for all you whiskey geeks) – not the older version that was distilled by Brown-Forman. Rittenhouse has long been a favorite for rye-based cocktails, especially when you can find one for $20 (it has crept up to the mid-$20s in most retailers).

On the nose, there’s some honey and butterscotch, but it’s buried beneath green wood, a cinnamon edge, a hint of vanilla. Neat, you get a rush of heat, then some dark brown sugar, a bit of rum raisin, dark cocoa powder, assertive rye spice, and a rich syrupy (but tingly) finish. This is no minty/super-herbal rye – it wears it’s hefty corn presence prominently and wears it well. A cube of ice rounds out the Rittenhouse nicely and helps balance the spicy edge and the dark, sweet core. But really, this rye is on the beast-end of the spectrum – it’s a bit too powerful for its own good when drinking neat, but works wonders when paired with lighter ingredients in cocktails like a Manhattan.

DSC_1131Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey
110 Proof, Approx. $50 Retail
Tasting Dates: June 15 – July 17, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent 

The color here vs. the Rittenhouse is quite similar, maybe a bit darker for the Pikesville, but both a pleasing copper hue. Dang, right away on the nose, you get a lot more nuance, a lot more character, a lot more… intrigue. Despite the higher proof, the nose comes across more integrated, less heat. There are waves of honey and brown sugar and vanilla – typical bourbon notes – but the rye presence keeps the sweetness in check, weaving in and out with subdued floral notes, warm cedar wood, dark cocoa-coated almonds (funny enough, I’ve gotten a similar note from the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof – is there something going on in those Heaven Hill barrels?).

Sipped neat, the Pikesville continues to show the benefits of those two years in the barrel. The spice level perks up – sharp jabs of nutmeg and clove and cinnamon, again the warm wood, and those cocoa-coated almonds playing out over a long warm finish. Over ice, even nicer, still sharp. A touch of water also helps bring out the depths of flavor. You do get the commonalities with the Rittenhouse (Maryland vs. Pennsylvania, be damned) – and, again, this is clearly not a rye of the heavy-mint/dill variety.

Verdict: So the extra few years and 10 points of proof on the Pikesville are indeed beneficial. I’m still more likely to use Pikesville for a Manhattan than to sip neat, which makes it a pricey option to amp up a drink, but whether in a cocktail or sipping over ice, Pikesville offers a solid upgrade over the already-very-solid Rittenhouse Rye. The Maryland vs. Pennsylvania semantics don’t bother me at all – they’re both good drinks, made by a good distiller, and competitively priced. I’m betting the Pikesville will not be an easy one to track down, so if you do see a bottle and you’re a rye fan, do give it a shot.



* 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 Pikesville provided by Heaven Hill.


Bottles I didn’t buy: Willett XCF Rye

Willett XCFI was in a liquor store today, and it happened to be at the same time that a distributor was bringing some things in. On the shelf, he had just placed a nice display of Willett XCF Rye, which I had heard of but never seen. The packaging is lovely – the stark white label and hand drawn illustrations are a nice change of pace amidst the typical text-heavy labels of other American whiskeys.

As for what’s inside – XCF stands for Exploratory Cask Finish, but it could just as well stand for “Extra Costs For (you).” Is that too harsh? I’m sorry. I just can’t see spending well north of $150+ on seven year old rye that was bought from MGP in Indiana and finished all of 90 days extra in a fancy used bourbon barrels that were also used in the making of Grand Marnier (or, as the label states, “finished in Curacao casks sourced from France”). The price at this store was actually quite a bit less than what I’ve read that others have paid – $130 vs. a more common $150-$200 elsewhere. Bargain? Not for me. I’ll happily pass on this and pick up 4 or 5 bottles of Rittenhouse Rye instead.

This particular Willett XCF is called out as version 1.0, meaning more are likely on the way. Is it delicious? I don’t doubt it. Orange (from the Grand Marnier casks) and rye go quite nicely together. (Read Sku’s review here.) Will it sell? Maybe so. The market has an apparently unquenchable thirst for anything rare and limited, so this fits the bill. Speaking of which… they had one bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean behind the counter. I didn’t even ask the price. I have better ways to spend my whiskey dollars than on gimmicks and hype.

Lot 40 Rye Whisky

Lot 40 Rye Whisky

Canada, eh? I’ll be the first to admit I know too little about the whisky of our neighbor to the north, but it’s clear that Canadian whisky is riding the same surge of love that is hitting bourbon and American rye these days. We’re seeing more premium releases, and they’re exporting more and more around the world. I’ve tasted a few, including American-labeled bottles of Canadian whisky like WhistlePig (what? WhistlePig isn’t made in Vermont!? but it says “hand bottled at WhistlePig Farm, Vermont”!). There’s plenty of nice stuff coming out of Canada for sure, but nothing I tasted really got me excited to fully embrace Canadian whisky… until I tried the Lot 40 Rye Whisky 2012 Release.

Ho. Lee. Cow.

Lot 40 Rye WhiskyThere are a bunch of much wiser Canadian whisky drinkers out there who have extolled Lot 40’s virtues. It won this big award from Whisky Advocate. And this one, too, from a bunch of Canadian whisky pros. And you can read a scholarly history of Lot 40 here (please do, really) from Davin de Kergommeaux, “certified Malt Maniac.” Most importantly, try to locate a bottle of this stuff ASAP. Lot 40 has been rolling out in select markets in the US over the past few months (after hitting Canada in late 2012), and just hit Georgia in January. It’s a limited release, so bottles are not likely to stick around for long. No telling what the next go round will look like, assuming there is one. So get it while the gettin’s good.

A few quick details, then the review and tasting notes. Lot 40 is a marriage of many batches of copper pot still rye whiskey – 90% rye, 10% malted rye – spanning different ages. I’ve read it’s mostly in the 7 to 8 year old range, aged in a variety of barrel types. It was produced at the Hiram Walker Distillery.

Lot 40 Rye WhiskyLot 40 Canadian Rye Whisky, 2012 Release
86 Proof, Approx. $55 Retail
Tasting Dates: February 1 – 9, 2014
Thirsty South Rating: WOW*

Lovely rich copper color on this Canadian. Sniff it and you get prominent rye bread, then a fruity almost bubblegummy note, nutty black walnut, ginger and a lot of intriguing spice notes. Think ginger peach cobbler with walnuts and a sprig of mint on top. It also had me thinking of Italian amari (that’s the plural of amaro, at least I think it is, kinda like octopi is to octopus, but I digress…) with their bittersweet baking spice character.

This is made for sipping – no water, no ice required. In fact, I much prefer it neat. This will not be confused for bourbon, it’s rye through and through, with a firm and elegant strength. It’s supremely well balanced, but you get bitter and slightly sour and delicately floral and rich warm grain and fruity tart at different moments in time. Baking spice shows up strong in the middle – plenty of clove, a burst of sharp ginger. A bit of wood shows up, but never gets in the way. The finish starts off sharp with those rye and spice notes, then mellows and fades slowly into happiness. It’s highly complex and highly drinkable, wholly rye but very distinctive at the same time.

This is an incredibly singular whisky. For American rye drinkers, it will have you questioning what a great rye should really taste like. It may not have the power of Thomas Handy, nor the age of the Sazerac 18, nor the warm embrace of the Van Winkle Family Reserve, but – to me – it’s every bit as intriguing, enjoyable, and impressive as any of those great rye whiskeys. O Canada!

Lot 40 Rye Whisky

Lot 40 Rye Whisky


* 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

Tasting Notes: 2012 Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye

Sazerac 18 year old rye is an interesting spirit, a rare spirit, an epic spirit. It’s released just once a year as part of the equally epic Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, with just 28 barrels per bottling.  Since at least 2006, the single source for this bottling has been a distillation completed way back in 1985  and put into stainless steel tanks sometime in (or after) 2003. So each year, the Sazerac 18 is the exact same whiskey, with the exact same time aging in oak barrels, but just a year older in the tanks. John Hansell over at Whisky Advocate reported on the details of this case a few years ago, pointing out that it was originally stored in a 13,500 gallon tank, then moved to three individual 2,100 gallon tanks to lessen the interaction with oxygen (though not treated with inert gas to completely stop oxidation).

Clearly, there is still interaction with oxygen – each year, the Sazerac 18 tastes a bit different, and each year, there is a bit more loss to evaporation, even in stainless steel. In 2007, the net loss from original barreling was 51.9%. In 2008, it jumped up to 54.1% (maybe that was when they moved tanks??). Then 56.1%, then 56.5%, then 57.3%, and now 57.6% with this 2012 release. Even still, the annual Sazerac 18 bottlings are kept at a constant 90 proof.

This is the one bottle I’ve secured so far out of this year’s Antique Collection, and it is, as expected, mighty impressive. Here are my notes, and a final thought at the end comparing the 2012 Sazerac 18 to my favorite well-aged rye.

Sazerac 18 Year Old
Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey,
Fall 2012 Release
90 Proof
Approx. $70 Retail
Tasting Dates: 10/08/2012-10/17/2012

Sazerac 18 carries a deep, red amber hue and an intoxicating smell that speak well to its age – deep and full. The most prominent notes on the nose are of dark brown sugar and the oil of an orange peel, that burst of slightly bitter but bright citrus you get when you squeeze a peel over a cocktail. Clove comes in to complement the dark sugar and citrus, and a vanilla-leather mustiness underlines it all. The interesting thing is, the age on the Sazerac rye mellows much of the rye character in the nose. Just a sniff reassures that this is no doubt a beautiful, mature, American whiskey, but the time in the barrel (and the tank) has dialed down the spicier rye notes.

Once you take a sip, that rye character does start to reemerge. The entry is sharp, the orange peel turns towards bitter orange, and evergreen-ish herbaceous notes assert themselves a bit more. There’s still a strong core that reminds me of Bit-o-honey candy, full of caramel-honey-almond, but this is not an overly sweet whiskey by any means. Also, it’s worth pointing out that, despite the advanced age, the oak here is fully in check. Sure, you pick up charred wood, but it in no way dominates the conversation.

The finish on the Sazerac 18 sings long and warm, with that sharp rye entry coming back to visit the roof of the mouth, a touch peppery, a bit grassy even. There’s that chewy Bit-o-honey quality also, lingering throughout.

As I’ve tasted this over the course of the last week and half, I’ve become more impressed with the 2012 Sazerac 18. It’s full of character and a fascinating and delicious drink for any whiskey lover, especially those who dig well-aged whiskey (without the overbearing oak that many well-aged whiskies tend to develop). Overall, I give it a full-on Wow* and highly recommend grabbing a bottle if you ever see it.

Now, as for how this stacks up versus other similarly aged ryes – my benchmark is the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, which I’ve compared previously to some other fine ryes. Tasting these two side by side is a treat, but I still give the edge to Van Winkle, which has a bit more rye character on the nose, and ultimately delivers a more harmonious balance through the palate and on to the finish. Either way, I wouldn’t pass up the chance to buy either of these epic ryes.

For a great deal of detail on this 2012 Sazerac 18 year old rye, please see Buffalo Trace’s excellent and much-appreciated info sheet.


* 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

The Manhattan: Cocktail Classicism and Revisionism

First off, I promise not to use the term “The Manhattan Project” or say “I’ll Take Manhattan” in the course of this post. I won’t even say “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” though I may burst out with a rendition of that “Man or Muppet” song from the recent Muppet movie.  It rocks. What I most certainly will do, however, is talk about this great cocktail and the many ways to find a variation of it that suits your tastes. The Manhattan may be the very epitome of the term “classic cocktail” (yes, even more so than the revered Martini), but it also serves as a foundation for endless exploration and customization. The base idea is 2 parts rye (no bourbon, please), 1 part sweet vermouth (try Dolin, try Cocchi, you will be amazed by the distinctions), a few dashes of bitters, and… that’s it. It’s simple. It’s strong. It’s balanced. It’s deep. It’s perfect, yet…

Once you’ve got the base concept down, the fun begins. The Wall St. Journal recently published a great overview of the different components and how you can mix and match them. Even just sticking with the notion of 2:1 whiskey to vermouth, you can get a lot of variation based on the particular whiskey or vermouth you use. And please don’t forget the bitters. Those precious dashes do wonders for the drink, and with all the interesting new bitters out there, you can put an interesting twist on the drink with that small component alone.(Side note: I personally prefer shaking over stirring, but you’ll find devotees on both sides of that fence.)

Bartenders have cooked up a nearly infinite number of drinks that depart from the basic Manhattan 2:1 ratio in interesting ways. My favorite variation is a relatively minor but highly impactful tweak. Cut the vermouth in half (and preferably use its close cousin, Punt e Mes), add 1/4 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and you have a Red Hook. The Luxardo adds a sprinkling of magical pixie dust that elevates the drink just a notch beyond perfection. (This one goes to 11) Some call for 1/2oz of the stuff, but I think that overwhelms the balance of the drink, basically coating your tongue in that pixie dust. Not good.

One twist I hadn’t seen before shows up in this nice little video from Liquor.com and Dushan Zaric of Employees Only in New York. His spin on the drink dramatically amps up the vermouth to rye ratio, and adds in some Grand Marnier for a deep orange detour. Sounds like a trip worth taking, but calling it a Manhattan is a bit of a stretch.

You like things dark, brooding and murky? Take out the Manhattan’s sweet vermouth, use 3/4oz Averna, and you’ve got a Black Manhattan. Crisper and drier? 1.5 oz bourbon, 1.5oz bianco vermouth, and a lemon peel twist makes a Bianco Manhattan. There’s the Brooklyn, the Little Italy, the Greenpoint. If it’s a New York neighborhood, there’s probably a Manhattan variation with that name. Now whether these are truly Manhattan variations, or simply clever drinks that bear a passing resemblance to the original in one or two discrete components… that’s a debate worth having over a cocktail.

Here’s the recipe and some thoughts on my personal favorite, The Red Hook:

2oz rye (I like Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond, a tremendous value at $15-$18)
1/2oz Punt e Mes (or your favorite sweet vermouth – Punt e Mes brings a nice bitterness)
1/4oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

Stir or shake over ice (I like the body that shaking provides) and strain into a chilled glass. A Luxardo cherry makes a nice garnish but is not a necessity.

Oh, and here are a few videos from Liquor.com – the one for the Employees Only Manhattan, and one for a nice Rob Roy as well (a Scotch variation on the Manhattan):