Classification: Straight Rye
Company: Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits
Distillery: Sourced from an undisclosed distillery(ies) in Indiana
Release Date: October 2022
Age: 3 Years
Mashbill: 95% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
Color: Dingy Gold
MSRP: $60 (2023)
Redemption Sur Lee gets its name from the French winemaking “sur lie” aging technique. During this process, lees, which are dead yeast cells that exist as the byproduct of fermentation and seeds leftover from fermentation, are added to white and sparkling wines as they are barreled. As the wine ages, winemakers rotate the barrels and even stir them so the wine is in constant contact with the lees. Eventually, the lees decompose, releasing sugars and proteins which then create tannins. When done properly, the sur lie process is said to enhance wine flavors, add texture, and create a softer yet richer tasting wine.
Redemption adapted this process and applied it to their whiskey. During distillation, alcohol is separated from the grains and yeast which is known as a whiskey’s “backset” or “sour mash,” and as Redemption dubbed it, “whiskey lees.” Just like the wine sur lie process, Redemption’s “sur lee” process adds the whiskey lees into the barrels as the whiskey is barreled for aging. They periodically rotate the barrels so the whiskey lees and the whiskey “continually interact, infusing the liquid over time to create a deep and complex expression.”
Redemption Sur Lee Straight Rye is a limited quantity release and is currently available in New York, Delaware, Florida, California, Texas, and Maine.
Soft caramel rises above scents of hay and rye grain. There is a light roasted scent throughout the aroma which is anchored by a medium-heavy raisin note. Strung throughout are unobtrusive scents of grass and pine with a Skittles candy highlight. Its overall softness is pleasant, but holds back the aroma from reaching a greater impact. The scents work well together despite their seemingly randomness.
The whiskey’s oily mouthfeel is immediately apparent and unmistakable in its mouthcoating viscosity. It carries with it light notes of sweet rye grain, hay, lemon, and undeveloped orange and apricot notes. The flavors themselves are approachable and wholeheartedly straightforward. Yet, it is the combination of them, and possibly due to Redemption’s sur lee process, that the palate turns sour and even vaguely vinegary at this point. It’s off-putting and odd, leaving the drinker questioning what they just drank.
As the whiskey’s oily mouthfeel rolls away, a pop of rye spice and heat enter the frame. Along with it, dry oak and pepper are introduced. They don’t last long though, as the flavor quickly drops off. Lingering caramel and mellow oak remain as does its mild sourness. The finish is simple overall and its light vinegar sourness is unquestionably bizarre.
Whiskeymakers love to take inspiration from winemakers, often trying to adapt their techniques and apply them to whiskey with hopes of standing out from the pack. Applying the French winemaking sur lie aging technique to whiskey, or more specifically, rye in this case, is odd and creative in the same breath. Both a whiskey’s backset/sour mash and a wine’s lee contain dead yeast, and during the sur lee process, the these break down releasing sugar, protein, and amino acids. Whiskeymakers typically use sour mash for their acidic properties, as they can also help control consistency from batch to batch.
It’s unknown how common adding backset directly to a whiskey while it ages is. You certainly don’t hear anyone talk about it, but that’s not to say no one has tried it. It comes across as a marketing gimmick and wildly experimental, but that could have been the case when French winemakers started using the process. Yet, applying a sur lie process to bourbon and its resulting influence on the whiskey is unmistakable.
I noticed that every time I tasted this whiskey I had a different reaction to it. Sometimes the oily mouthfeel was the whiskey's most notable feature, while other times the whiskey tasted notably sour, bitter, or acidic. While never punchy in regard to its sourness, I was nevertheless in for a surprise with every sip. This hot-cold response could be similar when someone drinks their first ever sour beer. The taste is completely foreign and unexpected. But over time, it begins to grow on you. Only time will tell if that will be the case with sur lee style whiskey, but as the first whiskey using this method, its foreignness is hard to get used to.
Like with any unproven process or experimental release, taking risks comes with a cost. Redemption is typically a value-centric brand. Their sourced bourbon and rye products are quite reasonable in price, often found for under $30, and their Rum Cask Finished Bourbon is one of the lowest priced rum finished whiskeys on the market.
Redemption Sur Lee Straight Rye is priced at $60 and most will struggle with that price for what they get. This isn’t going to be a whiskey you bring to a gathering and expect people to immediately fall in love with. This is for a gathering of people familiar with whiskey that you want to be a conversation starter. It’s unique, odd, and difficult to get used to. While its uniqueness would typically help justify its price, the overall lasting impact of the whiskey makes its $60 price very hard to make peace with.
While adapting French sur lie winemaking technique to whiskey making is creative, the resulting whiskey comes across as half-baked.
One sip and you’ll understand how unique Redemption Sur Lee Straight Rye tastes. It’s oily mouthfeel, especially for a 3 year old whiskey is undeniable. But the whiskey also features a strange sourness to it. It’s not so much that it’s overly vinegary, but the combination of lemon, hay, pine, and an overall sweetness certainly alludes to it. The whiskey keeps from being overly offensive due to its relative softness, but you’ll likely have the thought, “I’m not sure what’s going on here.” That can be viewed as a good thing in an over-saturated bourbon market where it's beginning to get harder and harder to taste something distinct. Redemption’s first-to-market sur lie inspired rye is certainly unique, but answering if it works and if it should become a mainstay process for other whiskeymakers is difficult to give a resounding “yes” to.