What an epic pour this is! To get all four of these elusive ryes together was not an easy task. This was a multi-person, multi-state hunt. It took many liquor store trips, internet searches, connections with other enthusiasts, some methods I can’t disclose, and a whole lotta luck to pull this off.
If you didn’t realize it yet us Breaking Bourbon guys are just a little fanatical about whiskey. And yes, you too can find all of these if you look hard enough... and you won’t need thousands of dollars either, just a lot of ambition, some creativity, and some luck of course!
Rye whiskey is known for the extra spice you get from the rye. I don’t want too much heat from alcohol per se, but I do want some spice. It comes in many forms - allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, and mint to name a few. Then there’s age. Ryes reach maturity at a young age, I’ve heard anywhere from 6-8 years is the sweet spot. I’m just a critic so I have no idea how hard it is to age a rye gracefully, but I can imagine it’s one of the more difficult challenges master distillers face. That being said, age should bring refinement and complexity if it’s done right. I want to taste it.
I want to know it’s been around for a while without having to read the label. But I still don’t want to lose the flavors that show up within the first 6-8 years. And then of course there’s the X-factor. The flavors coming together in such a way that’s just great and you can’t really explain why you like it so much, you just do. It’s like Dr. Pepper - I love that stuff. I don’t know why. I can’t describe what it tastes like other than to say it tastes like Dr. Pepper and it’s damn good. So that’s what I’m after - a good rye with added refinement and complexity from the extra aging and that elusive X-factor.
About this Face Off
This is a Face Off. A battle of the best of the best. I’ll tell you what I like, don’t like, and try to relate to the variety of personal preferences out there to help you decide which of these contenders you may want to hunt down yourself. Don’t let that fool you though, I have my favorite. This is about picking the BEST of the best. After all, this is a Face Off.
Vintage Rye 23 Year
This may be the most interesting of the contenders. It sports the highest age, a color so deep you’d swear it was barrel proof by looking at it, and a secret background that sparked hours of internet searching. No one seems to know where this stuff came from exactly, and if anyone figures that out be sure to let us know. It starts with a balanced and interesting nose, but then it buries you with wood flavors on the palate - old wood, tobacco, cigar box, burnt caramel, and vanilla. The finish is interesting, but somewhat weird. Is it too woody? For me, yes. I’ll give it interesting, better than many standard issue whiskeys out there. But it doesn’t have the balance and refinement I expect from quality aging. It doesn’t have the X-factor. Quite frankly, it doesn’t really have the rye spice elements I like either. If you like heavy wood and complexity, this is for you.
High West 21 Year Rocky Mountain Rye
Smooth. So smooth. I can’t say it enough. It’s hard to believe this is 92 proof. It’s also hard to believe it’s even a rye and aged for 21 years in a barrel. It’s light in color and low on spice. I really enjoy it, but let’s face facts - I want some rye spice, some elements of its age, and an X-factor. I’m not convinced this one fits the bill. Yes, it does give me something I could drink all day every day - I’d stock my shelves with this if it was available and more reasonably priced. It starts nicely with light vanilla and caramel on the nose, and then enters the palate with sweet vanilla, caramel, very light spice, cinnamon, and brown sugar. The finish is shorter but sweeter than the rest. This is an impeccably balanced whiskey with a delicious flavor profile. I find the Sazerac 18 to be subtle - this is like an even more subtle version of that. Don’t get me wrong, this is a phenomenal whiskey. However, the 21 years are not evident and the super subtle flavor profile makes it less interesting than the others. If you enjoy a smooth, sweet whiskey with a hint of spice you will absolutely love this. If you prefer more robust flavor, you probably won’t find this as exciting.
BTAC Sazerac Rye 18 Year-Old (2013 release)
This was a close 2nd place. I really enjoy the Sazerac 18 Year-Old and most enthusiasts would probably agree with me. The nose and finish are superb - perfectly balanced on the nose and a long complex finish. On the palate it’s got the spice of a rye, but not too much heat. Vanilla, maple sugar, and some citrus lightly mingle together. Smokey wood is evident later, but doesn’t overpower the other flavors. It’s smooth, but not as smooth as the Rocky Mountain Rye. That’s ok though, the spice is welcomed by me. It’s got the X-factor too, there is something wonderful happening here. All in all it’s more subtle than the Van Winkle though. I appreciate subtle, but sometimes I appreciate robust even more. This is an absolutely amazing rye that is worth the search.
Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (2013 release)
There is something amazing happening here. It’s as if the master distiller knew exactly when to pull the barrel… which of course he did. It’s a perfect balance of youthful rye spice, cinnamon, and black pepper followed by caramel, vanilla, burnt brown sugar, and fresh wood that comes from the time in the barrel. There’s even more going on here that’s hard to describe - it has that X-factor I was looking for. You can taste the age, but it’s not overdone. You can taste the youthful elements, but they don’t overpower the age. This one capitalizes on the strengths of the other three contenders and eliminates their weaknesses, even if they are only minor weaknesses. It’s full on flavor, but still balanced and complex. It’s both delicious and memorable. This is a top notch rye that deserves the praise it gets. If you see it, buy it. If you don’t want it let me know and I’ll buy it myself. I’ll trade you a Vintage Rye 23-Year for it for sure.