Tonight was a straight rye taste-off, including Rittenhouse BIB 10yo, 12-year-old Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye, Very Olde St. Nick 15yo rye, and 2004 Sazerac 18yo. (I did not include unopened 15yo Classic Cask or 13yo Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye I have on hand simply because I don’t have a space for another open bottle on my shelf at present. I will line them up with tonight’s favorites at a later date.)
Color: Surprisingly, the Olde St. Nick 15yo was the lightest, exhibiting the color of the copper coating of a new zinc penny. Next up the scale was the Rittenhouse, then the Saz, and darkest was the 12yo Van Winkle (perhaps denoting it’s more than 12 years old, keeping in mind that the current ‘13yo’ Van Winkle Family Reserve was 19 when Julian tanked it).
Nose: The Rittenhouse is very closed early, but blossoms in the glass to display florals and pepper grass overlaying a cotton-candy note; the Van Winkle smells like sweet apple-pie spices; the St. Nick demonstrates the mintiness expected from rye, with an underpinning of the grain itself; while the Saz could be a handful of rye-rich grain pulled directly from the feed bin.
Palate: Simply put, compared to the others, the Saz is a disappointment. It is almost flavorless on entry, finally exhibiting the rye grain from the mid-palate back, but with almost no competing or complementary taste. The St. Nick is similar, but at least shows traces of menthol/mintiness around the edges; the Rittenhouse is the most complex, with a related combination of dark rum, molasses and caramel notes; the Van Winkle continues its apple-pie theme with the flavors of the buttery thick juices spooned out of the bottom of the pie tin, tinged with a hint of spicy wood.
Finish: The Van Winkle had the longest finish – though long only by comparison – with dry wood balancing the earlier apple-pie sweetness. The Rittenhouse and Saz brought medium-long and –warm finishes, the first sign of life for the Sazerac. The St. Nick simply disappeared in a puff of rye grain.
Overall: The Van Winkle Old Time Rye was my favorite of this foursome, with something of interest in each element, and a nice balancing progression from spicy sweetness to the dry finish. The Rittenhouse is also notable for its complex flavor package, but the older Olde St. Nick and, especially, the Sazerac were disappointments by comparison (which maybe explains why I’ve been using most of this Saz bottle in Manhattans). These results make me wonder if there isn’t some tension between straight rye and long barrel aging, as the older pair seems to wilt by comparison to the significantly younger ones.