Sipp’n Corn Review – Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Battle Royal Revisited

When I put together my Rye Battle Royal at the end of 2016, I had stocked away four extra complete sets of samples.  I assumed—but wanted to check—that my palate and preferences might shift and I also wanted to get a few more local blind reviews.  I tried them blind again this time, but I knew which ten Rye whiskies were in the mix and certain characteristics of some, like the color of the Willett 25-year and the heat of Booker’s Rye, were dead giveaways.

In the end there was a narrowing of the spread between the top two, 3rd place almost fell to 4th, and there was some shifting among the bottom half.  I’d like to see how new entrants into the Rye market would fare against this lineup—especially Wilderness Trail which I think would place in the top three—but I decided against introducing factors that didn’t exist in 2016 in order to keep the comparison intact.  I saved one last box of the 10 samples to revisit in another few years.  In the meantime, here’s the old January 2017 post, updated with a few of the new comments and with the adjusted rankings:

*****

Over the past few years, American Straight Rye Whiskey has begun to experience a renaissance much like the early years of the Bourbon craze.  And like the Bourbon market, distillers and other producers are clamoring to repackage earlier, lower-shelf brands as premium, super-premium, and limited edition offerings.  Jim Beam “yellow label” Rye was a cheap option that was phased out in favor of a new green label option, reimaged to include the slick marketing claim that it is crafted from a “pre-Prohibition recipe.”  And Beam did not stop there; it also released a super-premium Booker’s Rye limited edition with a suggested retail price of $299.00, which was named 2016 “Whiskey of the Year” by many.  That all sounds eerily similar to what happened with Bourbon …

For this review, I wanted to take a large cross-section of Rye Whiskey from usually-available to scarce (but attainable), and from young to old.  Every one of my selections was bought at retail prices without going to the secondary market or waiting in line for a chance to purchase.  Even without lotteries and lines, I was able to get a Booker’s Rye and a Willett 25, so keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to camp outside of a store.  It might have been nice to include the strictly-allocated brands that flippers clamor to get, but then this comparison wouldn’t be realistic for the vast majority of consumers.

I decided to go with all American Straight Rye Whiskies so that I was comparing apples to apples, and so that I could be assured that there were no coloring or flavoring additives.  I also avoided anything finished in other barrels; this is pure Straight Rye Whiskey.  To further narrow the field, I went with Kentucky Straight Rye (sorry MGP), even if it is not labeled as Kentucky (like Pikesville).  This knocked out most merchant bottlers, including—admittedly—some that might have challenged for high rankings.

This undertaking was big enough that I knew I needed help, so I assembled a panel of friends with trusted palates for a blind comparison.  I arranged the samples by proof, but did not tell the group anything about the order.  They only knew that they were trying Straight Rye Whiskey.  My own initial tasting and scoring was also blind, but I re-tasted non-blind after compiling and averaging all of the rankings.

Here are the contestants, ordered by proof:

1.  Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Small Batch

Distillery:  Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age:  6 years
Proof:  90 proof
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $45.00

2.  Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Distilled at Brown-Forman, Louisville, Kentucky and bottled at Woodford Reserve, Versailles, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  90.4 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $40.00

3.  Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  100 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $35.00

4.  Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Heaven Hill New Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky and aged in Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  100 proof
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $30.00

5.  Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Undisclosed (but maybe Old Bernheim)
Age:  25 years
Proof:  100 proof
Barrel No. 1773
Bottle 73 / 84
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $350.00 (more recent releases cost $750)

6.  Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel (Liquor Barn)

Distillery:  Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  104 proof
Barrel No. 16
Warehouse E, 2nd floor
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $69.00

7.  Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel (Bourbon Crusaders) (via Joyal’s)

Distillery:  Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age:  NAS
Proof:  104 proof
Barrel No. 35
Warehouse E, 2nd floor
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $65.00

8.  Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Heaven Hill New Bernheim Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky and aged in Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  6 years
Proof:  110 proof
Percentage rye grain:  51%
Cost:  $50.00

9.  Willett Family Estate Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Willett Distillery, Bardstown, Kentucky
Age:  2 years
Proof:  111.8 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown
Cost:  $35.00

10.  Booker’s Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

Distillery:  Jim Beam, Clermont, Kentucky
Age:  13 years
Proof:  136.2 proof
Percentage rye grain:  Unknown (but not standard Beam)
Cost:  $320.00

And the Winner (still) is…

 In this comparison of ten Kentucky Straight Rye whiskies from across the age spectrum, from two years old to aged as long as you’ll ever see, and from affordable to market-leading expensive, I wondered whether the two heavyweights could withstand the challenge.  They mostly did, but what I really learned was that after the top three and bottom two were established pretty conclusively (but my no means unanimously), personal preference was the key.  Between those bookends, the panelists had some dramatically-different reactions to the same whiskey, although it’s also true that the averages were fairly delineated from top to bottom.

In other words, drink what you like and what makes you happy, and just use ratings, rankings, and reviews as a guide, except maybe for the extremes. With that said, the oldest, rarest Rye won, but it needed a photo-finish to do it:

2016—2019 Rye Battle Royal Results:

1.  Willett Family Estate 25-year Rye

Boom – this Willett was ranked 1st by five out of the seven panelists and one more first-place vote in 2019.  Believe the hype about these extra-aged Ryes that have been trickling out from Willett.  The color—a dark mahogany—ranks up there with the darkest that I’ve experienced.  Intense aromas of brown sugar, dark fruits, tobacco, and heavy oak previewed a thick, syrupy mouthfeel with rich, layered flavors.  Those who don’t like oak might want to move on (although it’s not as oaky some other extra-aged whiskies), but it also nails dark fruit (plums, cherries), dark chocolate, pralines, brown sugar, orange peel, and rich caramel for a true desert quality.  The finish has a remarkably long swell.  Enjoy a whiskey like this neat, over a long, relaxing time.

2.  Pikesville

Even though the oddsmakers had Pikesville coming in third, it retained its major upset by coming in second, barely behind Willett 25.  With the 2019 results added, Pikesville really distanced itself from the third-place spot.  Pikesville barely qualifies as Rye Whiskey with 51% rye grain and 39% corn, which in many ways makes it similar to a high-rye Bourbon.  In part because of the corn percentage, it’s sweeter than I often think of for Ryes, but it’s extremely well balanced with rye spice, black pepper, and mint, so it’s not just a “sweet Rye.”  It’s simply a fantastic whiskey, beginning with well-rounded nose and continuing with a great mouthfeel and solid warming finish.  If you’re looking to spend $50 on a Rye, Pikesville makes your decision easy.  Pikesville was scored consistently high by the panel, never dropping below 4th by anyone, but not garnering any first-place votes, either.

3.  Booker’s Rye

2016 Whiskey of the Year?  That’s something that I contemplated when I reviewed it during the summer of 2016, and it has since received this accolade from the big-time reviewers.  We certainly can’t dispute those who think so, but it fell to an average of 3rd place here by the thinnest of margins in 2016, and almost fell to 4th place when adding the 2019 reviews.  One 2016 reviewer rated it much lower and thought that it smelled like “cinnamon flavored paint thinner” and was too hot and tannic.  Still, there’s no denying that Booker’s Rye is a legitimate Whiskey of the Year.  Comments remarked on its “dark and sultry nose,” and it absolutely bursts with layers of spice.  Plus it also has outstanding balance and a fantastic finish (one panelist wrote the finish spread like “ripples on a calm lake”).  Once you consider the price on the secondary market, why not just buy a case of Pikesville?

4.  Knob Creek Rye

Here’s where some reshuffling started.  Already the volume King of Bourbon, Jim Beam is making a run at Rye King with its Booker’s Rye, and a very respectable Knob Creek Rye.  Leather, woody and spice balanced by nougat, with noticeably high ABV, were common comments.  Knob Creek Rye has a medium finish that holds onto the rye spice and pepper throughout.  Claiming the second-lowest price of the contestants, Knob Creek Rye certainly takes the title of price performer, and it increased two spots in the 2019 reviews.

5.  Russell’s Reserve Rye – Single Barrel (Liquor Barn)

The profiles of some Russell’s Reserve Bourbon private barrels have varied greatly, so I wanted to see whether the Rye would be more consistent, and I wanted to compare two of the best sources of private barrel selections.  It turns out that they share some similarities, but this one was much sweeter, with butterscotch, buttered popcorn, and vanilla playing the primary role with nuttiness but with great spice in the backbone.  The Liquor Barn barrel also has a much more prominent Big Red cinnamon flavor.  While receiving rankings mostly straight down the middle, this Russell’s Reserve received one 2nd-place vote and one 10th-place vote.

6.  Russell’s Reserve Rye – Single Barrel (Bourbon Crusaders)

This is a great Rye, so 5th place surprised me more than any other result, let alone 6th place after being leapfrogged by Knob Creek, and it’s much lower than my personal scoring.  This is a classic Rye where it’s spicy without screaming heat, and sweet without sugary candy.  Starting with aromas of oak and black pepper, the taste continues with oak, pepper, and baking spices balanced by cherry, crème brûlée, and crisp fruit with cocoa that hits at the tail end right before the beginning of the medium finish.  I have a bottle of this left and I’ll take it any day over Knob Creek Rye, but the averages didn’t agree with me.

7.  Russell’s Reserve Rye – Small Batch

Wild Turkey nails a sweet Rye with its six-year Small Batch.  The proof seemed a little low for this Rye, and I can’t help but wonder what this would be like at the 101 that Wild Turkey has made famous.  Light bananas, macadamia, and well-rounded candy notes made for a delicious—albeit sweet—Rye.  A less-than-subtle nose and the lack of a rye-grain kick makes this less of what we expected in a Rye Whiskey, but it was enjoyable in its own right.  In the new round of tasting, it even received a first-place vote!

8.  Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye

Rittenhouse BIB received consistent 8’s and 9’s in the first round, which spelled doom and resulted in a 10th place finish by a narrow margin.  But 2019 scores reshuffled the bottom three and lifted Rittenhouse up to 8th place.  Rittenhouse was mistaken as a young craft Rye with muddled flavors and an orange marmalade quality, and there’s some green wood, but there’s also dark fruit, cinnamon, and the expected rye spice.  While by no means a show-stopper, Rittenhouse BIB hits the Rye Whiskey criteria, and as the lowest-priced Rye out of the ten, it is often considered a great value.  I think this would fare well in a $30-and-under Battle Royal, but it fell flat with this group.

9.  Woodford Reserve Rye

Woodford Reserve’s core brands of Distiller’s Select and Double Oaked Bourbon enjoy great popularity for good reason, but the Rye hasn’t caught on yet.  After a nice nose, most panelists thought that the taste was thin and weak.  One panelist noted an acetone finish with “cinnamon that coats your nasal passages.”  One of the best comments that I’ve ever read (good or bad) about whiskey described the “funky” finish in these terms:  it “tosses you about like a wagon ride over a cobblestone street, with each wheel shaped differently.”  Woodford Reserve Rye was ranked 10th by several panelists, which is exactly where I put it in 2016 and this time around.

10.  Willett Family Estate 2-year Rye

Willett is having great success with its own distilled Rye and Bourbon, and a few years ago when its first two-year Rye was released, I picked one up to see how it would compare in this field.  Unfortunately, many panelists thought that it could have used more time in the barrel.  A couple of panelists loved it though.  The “love it” or “hate it” impression was shown by the widest spread of votes in two distinct camps (2nd and 3rd place, versus 9’s and 10’s, with nothing in between).  Comments for this polarizing Rye ranged from “crisp and lively” and “lovely golden raisin,” to “fish oil pills” and “vile stuff.”  Personal preference for young whiskey—or an aversion to it—probably explains these two extreme camps.  Low votes in the 2019 round doomed its final ranking.

If your favorite Rye isn’t on this list, spend some time in 2019 comparing it with Pikesville, a Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, or Knob Creek, or any of the other readily-available Ryes, and you might be surprised.  As Rye continues to expand, you’re bound to have plenty of choices.

Rye Battle Royale

2 Comments on “Sipp’n Corn Review – Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey Battle Royal Revisited

  1. Next time include MPG rye whiskey I prefer Clyde May’s 3 year old Straight Rye 94 proof which is 95 % rye 5% Barley and it’s non- chilled-filter this Rye is the Bomb

    Like

    • I stuck to Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey for this one, so I couldn’t include any MGP. I plan on putting together another one that includes a few of the new Rye Whiskies (like Wilderness Trail) and a few sourced from MGP.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: