Sunday, July 29, 2012

An Eye For A Rye...Or, Getting Biblically Drunk in the Name of Science

Double-blind Rye Tasting - The Results

What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch? ~ W.C. Fields
Rye Stacks ~ Lynn Harris
Beginning of the End:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends...the latest in this series(?) of double-blind tastings was both a rousing success, and a drawn out siege.  We had a large cast of characters (9), and a large field of ryes (9).  It was a definite battle against palate exhaustion, especially with the addicting, lime-and-burn Flamas Doritos my wife bought.

As a reminder (or for those of you just joining us) here is the full lineup of ryes (and a bourbon ringer) in order of price/ml:
  1. Rittenhouse 100 Proof - $23.99 (750ml)
  2. Bulleit (95) Rye - $25.99 (750ml)
  3. Fog's End Monterey Rye - $29.99 (750ml)
  4. Woodford Reserve (Bourbon) - $29.99 (750ml)
  5. High West Double Rye - $36.99 (750ml)
  6. Jefferson's Straight Rye - $39.99 (750ml)
  7. Whistle Pig Straight Rye - $64.99 (750ml)
  8. Woodford Master Collection - New Cask - $44.99 (375ml)
  9. Woodford Master Collection - Aged Cask - $44.99 (375ml)
General Notes:
First of all, I need to do something no one should ever have to do: justify the presence of Woodford Reserve Bourbon.  In my rush to prepare for the double-blind tasting I included my own bottle of Woodford in the shuffle of ryes-to-different-bottles.  In order to "fix" the situation, I would have had to lookup which ryes were in which bottles, ruining the double-blind piece.  So we left it in, as an amusing reminder of my ineptitude, and as an interesting foil to the field.

Next, because the two Woodford ryes were the only 375ml bottles in a field of new, full 750ml bottles, there was no point in shuffling them.  So, we did the Master Collection as a non-blind (?) tasting to start the show.  As always, there were individual discrepancies (sometimes substantial) in tasting notes, but I've tried to summarize the consensus opinions here.

Woodford Master Collection - New Cask
This was actually a great rye to start with, as a very well crafted, middle of the road example.  Middle of the road in terms of smell, taste, and mouthfeel, not price.  The common notes were: sweet nose, some vanilla and oak.  Smooth, medium body of wood, earth, leather, and a little spice.  Noticeable, pleasant burn here.

Woodford Master Collection - Aged Cask Without a doubt, this was the less-loved twin.  I think the aged cask imparts less of the oak traits, resulting in a less interesting, less palatable rye.  Overwhelming agreement here on a spicier, but boring rye.  Common notes included: sweet nose, anise and pepper spice up front, but less burn, and again, boring.  I think the best quote was "too polite".

Fog's End Monterey Rye
This rye is actually hopped up on 50% sugar, and it one liked it.  Common complaints were a strong burnt, smokey taste, harsh on the palate with hints of campfire, rubber and band-aid.  Interestingly, almost everyone commented on the (mercifully) quick finish.  I'm genuinely disappointed, as I wanted to like the local entry.

High West Double Rye
This is an interesting one.  Multiple people pegged this as the Woodford bourbon.  Common notes included a sweet nose, nice vanilla and caramel throughout, very mild alcohol on the tongue.  Very drinkable.  But the problem is, these aren't necessarily the traits of a great rye.  Rye is supposed to be more spicy, fruity, earthy, dare I say more complex than bourbon.  So, in that regard, the "double rye" has failed.  But it was a clear win for this group of bourbon lovers.

Jefferson's Straight Rye
Dear Jefferson's, why are you so bad?  Rather than try to sum this one up I'm simply going directly to the notes: "chemical...burping band-aid", "rubbery...burnt but not flavorful", "boot-flavored, peaty, gross", "sharp alcohol, numbing", and possibly the best quote, "Suitable for doorknob salesmen recovering from minor surgery."

Whistle Pig Straight Rye
Here we come to the most expensive of the 'normal' commercial ryes in our tasting.  And surprisingly enough, it really stands up.  Most people noted this as a favorite.  And in reading through all the notes it was clear that people had way more to say about this than any other rye.  Common notes included: rich, complex, sweet, mellow, vanilla, oak, delicious, fruity, apple, spice, and one 'balsa' (as a good note).  Most people noted the long, lingering finish, with an enjoyable warming on the palate.

Bulleit (95) Rye
This is probably one of the most common ryes to find in your local bar or liquor store.  It's cheap, generally well regarded, and blends well in a cocktail.  As a stand-alone however, it didn't really hold it's own.  No one seemed to dislike it, but it lacked distinction.  Common notes were: very light nose, less oak, mellow vanilla, smooth, easy drinking, quick finish.  A couple people mistook this for bourbon, which again, may be a failing in a rye, but an acceptable failing.

Rittenhouse 100 Proof
As the cheapest rye in the bunch, this one didn't fail to fail.  No one liked it, though it wasn't outright hated either.  Here are some of the interesting notes: light, breathy, uncultured, closer to grain alcohol, minerally, earthy, dirt, dirty, smells of dirt, tastes of dirt, noticeable burn, really warm finish, fiery and bitter.  Clearly not the winner, even at $24.

Woodford Reserve (Bourbon)
And now for something completely different!  The bourbon ringer happened to be in the last bottle we sampled, which may explain the somewhat schizophrenic descriptions...starting with the reasonable:  clean vanilla nose, sweet, oaky, vanilla throughout, hint of citrus...but then there were two people that said: "lots of rye flavor" and "High rye".  To be fair, at this point in the evening we had all gotten a bit sauced...and we had some ryes that genuinely tasted more like bourbon.

Although it was a fun, boozy night, I'm not sure how many lessons could really be gleaned from the tastings.  Some ryes suck.  Some ryes would make decent bourbons.  Some expensive ryes are worth it, and some cheap ryes aren't.  And to some, top-rated bourbon packs "lots of rye flavor".  There's no question the opinions varied, but it was helpful to identify a couple of really bad, almost undrinkable ryes to avoid...I'm looking at you Jefferson's, Rittenhouse and Fog's End!

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