There’s no surer sign of Rye Whiskey’s comeback than Diageo’s recent release and marketing of its Bulleit (95) Rye Small Batch American Whiskey (oddly, though,…no website). If a huge beverage conglomerate like that decides to put out a complex, high rye content whiskey like this, you know that somebody’s decided for damn sure that there’s money to be made with the style. I’m all for it. Rye whiskey had all but disappeared there for several decades, clinging like grim death to the fringes of the spirit world in the form of only Rittenhouse, Jim Beam Rye or Old Overholt. There were no boutique, craft distilleries making bold ryes in the 50’s and 60’s. The style went out of style back around prohibition, when the nation’s taste in whiskey turned to the milder (and more available) blended Scotches and Canadian whiskies. Once prohibition ended, Bourbon makers picked up more or less where they left off, but Rye makers, usually located in more northern, metropolitan areas, had seen the writing on the wall during the dry spell and decided to get out the game and get “real” jobs.
So how did Rye start making a comeback in the first place? Anchor Distilling’s mighty experiments, 18th Century, 19th Century, and Hotaling’s expressions, probably played a small part. The rise of smaller craft distilleries and brands in the Midwest and Northeast, Templeton and Tuthilltown for example, making no secret of their reach back into the past helped as well. But perhaps the biggest boon was the rise of the artisanal cocktail and all the history, facial hair, fancy ice, and smugness that came with it. As bartenders looked back to find pre-prohibition recipes, they found that many whiskey cocktails were not made with Bourbon or Canadian (oft called “rye” but not), they were actually made with Rye. In the early 2000’s most producers couldn’t keep up with demand and, though there were now a few more out there, good Rye’s became hard to find.
So here we are in 2011, distilleries are popping up on every corner, speakeasy-type bars are found in most big cities, house-made bitters and infusions are the norm, and a mammoth beverage company is flooding the market with a spirit that was on life support just 15 years earlier. Diageo outsources the making of their Bulleit Bourbon to Kirin’s Four Roses Distillery, but for the Bulleit Rye, they turned to that large mystery-enshrouded facility known as Area 51…I mean LDI, or Lawrenceberg Distillers Indiana, a commercial distillery that along with making vodka and gin, makes the rye recipe used here and three different bourbon recipes. The (95) part in Bulleit’s (95) Rye pertains to the 95% rye content in the mashbill. It’s not often you see this much of that grain in a whisky; by law to be called Rye, a mashbill must have a minimum of only 51% rye, with the rest being other grains. The other 5% here is malted barley, which aids in the fermentation process. Bulleit’s Rye is aged for 4 – 7 years in new, charred American oak barrels.
The Nose: A honeyed but herb-y, mildly astringent, rye-filled nose. There’s dill, juniper, and a bit of fennel alongside the greenish, barely toasted rye. A bit of puckering vinegar drifts over the top, but not in an off-putting way, it just emphasizes the rye even more. Subtler, sweeter notes of vanilla bean, burnt toffee, cinnamon, and citrus pith help to balance things out.
The Palate: A nicely viscous entry with more burnt sugar notes on the tip of the tongue. The rye bursts through, brightly and strongly, lightly toasted still and slightly bitter. Spicy, slightly woody herbal notes swell towards the end, with drying clove, more juniper and dill. This teases you into thinking it might get a bit rough, but it never happens, that sweetness keeps it remarkably smooth.
The Finish: Continued drying clove, pickling spice notes and rye with subtle hints of bitter vanilla and oak char.
Thoughts: This one is very much a rye whiskey and at the same time, unlike any other rye I’ve had. The 95% in the mashbill of course means there’s going to be a lot of that sour, herb-y, graininess, but it’s the other, sweeter, more bourbon-y notes that make it so interesting. I was expecting the greenish, crackling, grain forward whiskey it is, but was surprised by smooth, rounded drinkability it has as well. I think there are better sipping ryes out there, the Van Winkle 13yo and Sazerac 18yo of course come to mind, but for the money, this is really good, big-time stuff and with its complexity and strength, will probably become a mixologist’s favorite in no time.
Bulleit (95) Rye Small Batch American Whiskey