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

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.

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* 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.

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

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 to Bourbonblog.com, is 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: 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

Small Batch Goodness: 13th Colony, Georgia Craft Distillery

Small Batch Goodness: 13th Colony, Georgia Craft Distillery

We here at Thirsty South are firm supporters of the “drink local” movement – be it beer, wine, spirits, or coffee (or tap water and cola for that matter!). The South obviously has a tremendously successful history with bourbon in Kentucky and whiskey in Tennessee, but recent years have seen the rise of the craft distillery movement in the South as well as some unique Southern takes on vodka and other spirits. Corsair Artisan comes to mind on the craft side, as does Firefly vodka on a more commercial scale. And for the past year or so, another craft producer has been building a following in Georgia with their Southern Vodka and Southern Gin: Thirteenth Colony Distillery out of Americus, Georgia.

Thirteenth Colony is a small batch producer, and has recently released a limited edition (only 400 cases made) 100% corn whiskey that is turning heads. The Thirteenth Colony Southern Corn Whiskey was aged in old oak barrels, and comes in at a healthy 95 proof. This combination of 100% corn, oak aging (though still relatively young), and the robust strength makes for a unique product that should help Thirteenth Colony further establish its credentials as a craft distillery worth keeping an eye on.  Not that they are an unknown quantity – their Southern Gin picked up a Gold Medal at the most recent Spirits International Prestige (SIP) Awards competition in San Diego, and the Southern Vodka claimed a bronze.

Listening to the folks behind Thirteenth Colony, one gets a very clear image of their mission: high quality, small batch spirits “made by friends for friends.” There is a unique camaraderie that infuses their brand, and they definitely wear their Southern sense-of-place on their sleeve, from the “Southern” branding on their gin, vodka and corn whiskey, to the mention on each label of being “Georgia’s only craft distillery.” And the “Thirteenth Colony” name, of course, refers to Georgia’s heritage from colonial times.

So, the big question is, how are their products? Will they make Georgia proud? The short answer is, “yes.” The Southern Corn Whiskey is noteworthy for its unique character. The Southern Gin is a serious pleaser, with a nice coriander presence. The Southern Vodka is an all-around solid vodka that will make any bar happy, though the least interesting of these three bottlings. We were fortunate to receive some samples for tasting, and here are our full notes:

Thirteenth Colony, Southern Corn Whiskey, 2010 Limited Release
95 Proof
Approx. $30 Retail
Tasting Date: November 4, 2010

Nice balance of mellow oak and light caramel on the nose. The mouthfeel is soft and full. The corn is noticeable in a good way, slight summery sweetness, and sets this apart from most other whiskeys. Interestingly, the oak fades to the back on the palate (vs. being prominent on the nose), so the oak aging was enough to impart some pleasant top notes without overtaking the flavor profile. It is fairly robust at 95 proof, but not unbalanced at all, with a nice touch of heat on an overall smooth finish. The color is a typical, light golden amber. Good Stuff* and definitely worth seeking out to experience a 100% corn whiskey with oak aging.

From the distillery: “Each bottle of Southern Corn Whiskey is numbered and signed. Our Limited Release Corn Whiskey will be a small quantity, released once per year in the fall, and when it is gone, it is gone for the year.  Our goal is to pursue unique, high quality spirits and have several in various stages of development and planning.”

Thirteenth Colony, Southern Gin
82.4 Proof
Approx. $17 Retail
Tasting Date: November 4, 2010

Prominent coriander on the nose, alongside refreshing lavender/floral and light juniper herbal notes. Mouthfeel manages to be both crisp and full, with nice viscosity. The coriander carries over to the palate, which veers towards invigorating “green” herbs, celery even, a touch of lime. A well rounded juniper gin, not too sharp, not too mellow. Citrus notes linger enticingly on the finish. Good Stuff* and highly recommended for gin fans looking for a Southern player to knock out the Brits.

Thirteenth Colony, Southern Vodka
80 Proof
Approx. $17 Retail
Tasting Date: November 4, 2010

A touch of cucumber and alcohol on the nose. Clean on the palate with hints of sharp citrus and peppery spice which mellow out on a finish that stays smooth while packing some heat. Minimal texture, straight and to the point. Good Stuff* – a solid vodka to displace the Absoluts of this world in any Southerner’s bar, but not as compelling as Thirteenth Colony’s other offerings.

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* 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

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Thirteenth Colony Distillery quote regarding their Corn Whiskey is from the excellent interview with Kent Cost, co-owner of the distillery, that appears in American Craft Spirits’ “Meet The Makers” series