A couple of nights ago I decided to sit down with a bunch of old ryes and see if I could get a bead on their differences/similarities. Thanks to samples from a couple of very gracious SBers (LB and LR you know who you are) and a couple entries from my own stash I put these 5 ryes head to head: HW16, Rittenhouse 25, Rathskellar, Vintage 21 and Hirsch 21.
My brother and father were also present and nosed and sipped each dram as well. They both were most impressed with the nose on the Hirsch 21 and the palate on the HW16. They don't really know what a finish is, we're working on that, they're too busy choking on the alcohol - teetotalers. I thought their observations were interesting, as many have noted how beguiling the nose is on the Hirsch. I thought it funny that even beginners would also pick up on that. Also I believe that the reason that they chose the HW16 is because they both aren't fans of dominating oak tones in their whiskey, but I wasn't when I started out either, it's an acquired taste, but it comes with the territory when you're exploring older ryes. Done right it sings.
The HW16 had a bit of a closed off nose, but reminded a bit of an eau de vie, had only been open for a couple of days. It is really lively and fruity on the palate IMO, very dangerously drinkable, green apples, pear, sweetness in balance with a malty character that kicks around with a very gentle lasting finish, mild barrel influence appearing in a sort of toasty, nutty sort of way, but it's faint. It sounds crazy to say but it is the most refreshing older rye I've tasted, and definitely won the day for being better than the rest for the hot summer months.
The Rittenhouse 25 is on its last legs, been open for a while, but this particular barrel/bottle really hit me right. The nose is very balanced, hints of caramel, char, tobacco and candied apple come across in an elegant if somewhat restrained way, and most of these notes carry into the palate and then transform into the finish with peppermint and smoky oak leaving a hearty, tingling finish for awhile. I've really enjoyed this bottle, but on this night, it seemed a little flat beside the others. I guess I got too familiar with it and took it for granted because of all the new belles at the ball. Story of my life I guess, but I digress...
The Hirsch 21, crazy nice nose, sandalwood, pipe tobacco, church pews, rose hips and the right amount of je ne sais quoi to make me actually prefer nosing it to tasting it. Seriously. IMO this is the same juice as the Hirsch 22 and 25, just based on the singular nose. My brother, who has a ridiculously good sense of smell, has had the Hirsch 22 a few times, and he immediately, without my prompting, identified the glass as Hirsch rye. I for one got notes of pencil shavings on the nose and cumin on the palate, which I didn't get the first time I visited the sample a while back. Think it might have degraded slightly from oxidation, but it was still wonderfully deep and complex on the palate, spicy on entry, but quickly blooming with layers of complex sweetness, honey, demerara sugar and a note that tasted curiously like grilled sugar coated cider donuts (try it at the end of a BBQ if you haven't, makes for a great dessert). Then the wood comes into play on an incredibly long finish, balancing well with the sweetness and kicking around for a solid minute. If I've used some ridiculous descriptors here, it's because the Hirsch rye often makes me strain for words.
Now for the Vintage 21. Um, what? You can't be serious. This is absurdly good. My notes go haywire here. I actually wrote down expletives five different places. The epitome of balance, transformative on the palate, transformative FOR my palate, ginger snaps, green melon, beeswax, salted caramel, sugar plums, I wish I could trade my whole bunker for 6 cases of just this. Hyperbole much? Honestly this stuff is a stunner. Wow.
Last but not least, the Rathskellar rye. My palate was pretty tired by the time I got to this one, and I took no notes because halfway through the Vintage 21 I put my pen and pad down and said screw it, I need to be enjoying this as much as possible. Rathskellar tastes quite a bit like cask strength BMH23 or maybe Vintage 21, but who the hell knows? It is large and lovely, meat on the bones and plenty of marrow too, succulent and savory. And I still have a tiny bit left.
As for the origins of all these KBD sourced ryes, clearly your guess is as good or better than mine, but I think that between the potential sources of Medley and Cream of Kentucky and forgotten rye experiments at Barton and older Heaven Hill product as well, not to mention the skills of Drew Kulsveen in blending, there is just no way we're ever going to guess right. At one point I had convinced myself Vintage 21 was a vatting of Ritt 21 and Medley, but who really knows. Drew. And until he tells, it just adds another layer of happy mystery to my enjoyment of his spectacular ryes.
Sipped a Baby Saz while typing up this mammoth post. Cheers!