High West Breaks Out Barreled Manhattans

As noted a few weeks back, the “barrel aged cocktail” craze is in high gear in bars across the country. Here in Atlanta, we recently tried the barrel aged Negroni atĀ Double Zero (delicious, if not quite as bracingly vibrant as its unaged counterpart). And, now, lucky shoppers can find a limited edition, barrel aged Manhattan on the shelves of fine spirits purveyors across the country.Ā High West Distillery of Utah is known for pushing boundaries (note their unique blended rye, bourbon/rye blend, “silver oat whiskey,” and the fact that theirĀ proprietor, DavidĀ Perkins – raised in Georgia by the way, was awarded the 2011 Malt Advocate Pioneer of the Year Award). It’s no surprise that they’ve been a trailblazer for barrel aged cocktails by the bottle, starting last year with a special 100-day-aged “U.S. Grant Centennial Celebration Barreled Manhattan” and progressing to the the version now on store shelves with the moniker “The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan.” “The 36th Vote” commemorates Utah’s decisive vote in the repeal of Prohibition, and the notion of a Manhattan as the appropriate drink to celebrate Prohibition’s repeal is entirely appropriate given its place in the classic, pre-Prohibition cocktail pantheon.

High West was kind enough to provide two samples of their Manhattan – the barreled version which can be found on store shelves, and an “unaged” version for comparison sake. “The 36th Vote” is a mix of 2 parts High West 95% rye whiskey, 1 part sweet vermouth, and a couple dashes of Angostura bitters per serving, which then spends somewhere between 90 and 120 days of aging time in a 2 year old, American oak, rye whiskey barrel. Perkins admitted that the vermouth used was not necessarily their first choice (Carpano Antica Formula anyone?), but due to federal regulations, had to be one that they could source wholesale in bulk.

The result is aĀ 37 percent alcohol (74 proof), high quality Manhattan in a bottle. To test out the difference of the barrel aging, we tasted these samples first without any ice (I typically like mine shaken with ice and strained into a chilled glass, but many folks prefer stirred). The impact of the barrel aging is not unexpected – it mellows and mingles the flavors to produce a rounder, fuller cocktail (even vs. a version like the one that High West provided that has been pre-mixed and sitting in a bottle, rather than freshly made). With the unaged version, the sharp notes of the vermouth and bitters jump out on the nose, then linger prominently on the finish. With the aged version, there is a softer, more integrated nose, where the rye and the vermouth seem to snuggle up together,Ā ratherĀ than posture against each other. It simply comes across as more integrated, more lush, more happily-wed. There are no obvious notes of the wood itself; rather, it’s that little bit of breathing time that the wood barrel provides that brings the drink into a slightly greater harmony. And “The 36th Vote” is exactly that – a beautifully harmonious take on the Manhattan.

Is the barrel aged cocktail in a bottle going to be the next big thing? I don’t think so. It’s just too darn easy to make a great Manhattan at home, not to mention the fact that experimenting with various ryes and various vermouths is a great way to learn what you like best. But “The 36th Vote” is worth experiencing, worth seeking out, to get a taste of time in the barrel, and to experience a uniquely different form of wedded bliss.

High West Distillery, The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan
74 proof
Approx. $45 retail for a 750ml bottle
Tasting Date: June 7, 2011
Good Stuff ā€“ a great way to experience the impact of barrel aging on a classic cocktail

Three Fine Ryes: Bulleit 95, Rittenhouse 100, Russell’s Reserve

Rye has been on a steady upward swing over the past several years, driven in large part by the similar upward trajectory of classic cocktails. The notion that a proper Manhattan should be made with rye has taken hold, rightfully so in our opinion – the spicier profile of rye just balances so well with sweet vermouth and a touch of bitters. Of course, savvy distillers and marketers are looking to take advantage of this trend. Just this week, the folks behind Bulleit Bourbon introduced a new rye, Bulleit 95, Small Batch American Rye Whiskey. Bulleit 95 is 90 proof, 95% rye mash and 5% malted barley, and, according toĀ Bourbonblog.com,Ā isĀ aged between 4 and 7 years. It’s also rumored (now confirmed) to be sourced from LDI in Indiana, whose production of Templeton Rye has impressed many. At $25-$30, Bulleit 95 competes squarely with the Russell’s Reserve 6 year old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (also a “small batch”) – a level in price well above Old Overholt and well below the big bad boys like High West Rendezvous Rye, Thomas Handy and Van Winkle Family Reserve. We decided to undertake a “taste test” between the Bulleit 95, the Russell’s Reserve, and the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (100 proof, at least 4 years old), a much-lauded bargain bottle ($15-$22) that is increasingly hard to find.

These three ryes make a fascinating lineup. In the glass, neat, the Russell’s Reserve has the lightest color, a light golden amber, despite the fact that it’s the only one that states its age – a solid six years. The Bulleit 95 kicks it up a notch to a delightful amber hue, and the Rittenhouse moves into deep copper territory, with a clearly thicker viscosity. On the nose, the distinctions are also clear. The Bulleit 95 is laden with sweet caramel, vanilla, oak and cherry, but evolves nicely in the glass, with layers of buttered popcorn weaving in and out of the toasty wood. The Russell’s Reserve instantly hits your nose with grassy, herbal notes, certainly more rye-like in character. And then the Rittenhouse brings the full on rye spice – heady, full, a touch of heat (it is 100 proof), and a molasses-y depth that calls to mind rum raisin.

Sipped neat, the Bulleit 95 has a lovely, lingering mouthwatering presence. The rye spice emerges here, and stays through for a long finish with a kick. This is a nice sipper, enough rye that you know what it is, but very well balanced. The Russell’s Reserve absolutely kicks it up a notch, more spice, more burn, more rye character. Not better per se, but definitely more of a prototypical rye. The Rittenhouse is a bit of a beast, and definitely benefits from a touch of water, with softens and smooths out its rough edges. As a sipping whiskey, the Bulleit 95 wins the round, though does not bring the combination of deep rye character that you will find in more expensive ryes like the High West Rendezvous.

The ultimate rye cocktail in our book is the Manhattan. Simple. Classic. Superbly balanced. We tried these three ryes in a classic combination of 2 parts rye to 1 part sweet vermouth, with two dashes of bitters and a twist of lemon. Here, the Bulleit 95 came across as a bit too mellow, allowing the vermouth to grapple away the drink. The Russell’s Reserve produced a very nice balance, but the assertiveness of the Rittenhouse really kicked the drink up a notch. We’re not saying that it will work better in all cocktails (or even with other variations of a Manhattan), but the Rittenhouse rye really makes a great Manhattan (and is a bargain to boot).

These three fine ryes are all worthy of a place in your bar – depending on what you’re looking for. Cheers to Bulleit for making a rye that stands apart, though it won’t be the rye that seizes the cocktail crown. The Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond is a stellar bargain and a superb cocktail rye. The Russell’s Reserve offers a solid middle ground, and if your tastes veer to the herbal, grassy edge of rye, this is the one for you. So… what’s your favorite rye… and why?

Bulleit 95 Rye, Straight American Rye Whiskey
90 proof
Approx. $25 retail
Tasting Date: February 28, 2011
Good Stuff – a very nice sipping whiskey, though somehow lacking in the full-on rye character despite the 95% rye mash

Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye, Straight American Rye Whiskey
100 proof
Approx. $15 retail
Tasting Date: February 28, 2011
Good Stuff – a GREAT value for rye-based cocktails, sips nicely with a bit of water

Russell’s Reserve 6 year old, Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
90 proof
Approx. $28 retail
Tasting Date: February 28, 2011
Good Stuff – very nice overall rye for the price

For further reading, here’s a good little read by Greg Best of Atlanta’s Holeman & Finch:Ā Rye: The resurgence of the other American whiskey

Update 1/4/2012: For those ready to step up to the big time, check out our BATTLE RYE between Van Winkle Family Reserve and High West Rendezvous Rye

Cocktails: Apple Season in a Glass

Summer is still hanging on with a vengeance, sunny hot days melting into cool September nights. Despite the heat, autumn is around the corner, and apple season is already here. Just head up to North Georgia and the apple trees are bountiful with fruit. In honor of cooler days to come and the heavenly aroma of apple pies inundating the air in lucky kitchens, we bring you a simple cocktail recipe sure to elicit mental visions of such glory: Apple Season in a Glass.

Apple Season in a Glass

The key ingredient here is Travis Hasse’s Apple Pie liqueur. An inexpensive (though still hard to find in the South) bottle of liqueur built on apples, spices and neutral grain spirits. On its own, it’s sweet, sticky, and almost impossibly true to the aroma and flavor of apple pie. It’s like taking a pie in the face, and it begs for balance. A nice rye (or bourbon, to each his own) will do just the trick. We like Russell’s Reserve Rye (6 year old) as a nice cocktail mixer. It brings a nice toastiness and slight bitterness to the table. A dash of Peychaud’s bitters adds a touch of aromatic complexity, again balancing out the sweetness of the liqueur. There are certainly more complex and challenging recipes that will get you a similar taste of apple season, but this is a nice and easy way to help your mind escape the lingering summer heat and swing into Fall.

1.5 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Travis Hasse’s Apple Pie Liqueur
Peychaud’s bitters to taste

Shake and strain into an old-fashioned glass half-filled with broken ice.

Adding cinnamon or nutmeg will be overkill on top of the liqueur, though a cinnamon stick would be a nice visual touch.