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Thread: Rye Conundrum

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  1. #1
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    Rye Conundrum

    The conversation in the Knob Creek Rye thread got me to thinking about my thoughts on Rye Whiskey, or what I think my thoughts are on Rye Whiskey.


    Ryes have me a bit confused at the moment. When people ask me what the difference is between rye and bourbon, part of my answer always brings up the taste profile in relation to bourbon. Usually, it goes along the lines of rye being "bolder", "sharper", "spicier", etc. In reality, however, I'm hard pressed to find those attributes in many ryes at all! As I stated in the KCR thread, OO and JBR are dull, flat, watery and boring. The Ri1 is definitely soft as WhiteDog experienced in trying to get a good cocktail out of it...though I do enjoy it. Barton ryes are soft on my palate. 354 Ritt 100 tastes like bourbon. The 1 Ritt is similar, though better IMO. I adore Handy and Saz Jr. But, for their unique taste profile, not necessarily for what I would call spicy boldness. Though, they do possess a baking spice quality. The LDI ryes are interestingly tasty, but not a slobberknockerey spicy kick. Just interestingly different. As I got to thinking, I determined that most ryes just seem muted to me. Really, only the WTR 101, and to a lesser degree the KC Rye are what I would term "bold, sharp, and Spicy".

    Is this just a total miss of the mark, on my part? Was/am I expecting the wrong things in rye whiskies? Or, is my spice-o-meter just funked up?
    JOE

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  2. #2
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    I have to agree with Joe here. For the last 20 years or so the rye flavor profiles have been sort of a timid step away from Bourbon. Just a little different mind you, but not enough to cause any offense.

    This is where the micros could really shine by making bold, complex, imaginative rye whiskys that could either be an interpretation of earlier styles or something completely new like a dry, spicy, floral rye aged in toasted rather than charred barrels.
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  3. #3
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    Quote Originally Posted by squire View Post
    I have to agree with Joe here. For the last 20 years or so the rye flavor profiles have been sort of a timid step away from Bourbon. Just a little different mind you, but not enough to cause any offense.

    This is where the micros could really shine by making bold, complex, imaginative rye whiskys that could either be an interpretation of earlier styles or something completely new like a dry, spicy, floral rye aged in toasted rather than charred barrels.
    Interesting point, Squire. Considering that the major bourbon distilleries in the midst of having their arses handed to them with the transition from brown liquors to vodkas as the preferred liquors, did they "dumb down" rye? In other words, keep making it (if only one day a year), but reign in the spicy profiles in deference to the new market realities?

    I agree to a point on the micros, but I really wish the majors take the lead with expanding the rye profile.
    JOE

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    "Every bottle is its own learning experience." -- Sensei Ox-sama

  4. #4
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    Joe I don't know if it was dumbing down because they thought customers no longer wanted such flavors (understandable considering the times) or just make it cheaper because customers wouldn't notice or care.

    Can't blame 'em though, demand for rye whisky was so low that the major distillers could fulfill an entire annual supply by distilling rye just one day a year.
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  5. #5
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    I agree that this is a really interesting topic. Just tonight I was asked the difference in flavor between ryes and bourbons, and i gave a long winded answer that probably wasnt very satisfying for the person who asked. I told him that ryes are spicier, bolder, earthier, but I kept thinking of exceptions. The spiciest whiskeys I've had recently are Four Roses store picks (though, as mentioned, Willett and High West found some great spicy stuff).

    From some of the comments here, it sounds like the ryes of ol' seemed to fit the stereotypical rye profile better than most ryes of today...in a good way. What could have changed that would have caused that shift? Using less malted rye? Is the rye grain itself less flavorful? Have many distillers paired their rye mashes with a less spicy (and perhaps more efficient) yeast?

  6. #6
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    If you start talking about vintage ryes like the Old Overholt '77 that I've been sipping on - it tastes nothing like the ryes of today.
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  7. #7
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    Here is another consideration to confuse matters, how confident would you be to differentiate between the 'spice' of rye and the 'spice' of high wood and high proof whiskey? Those tannic notes become pretty spicy after a few years..
    In a blind tasting my lifeline would be to search for that earthiness mentioned earlier, that seems pretty constant, but not foolproof!

  8. #8
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    The yeast used is also a consideration on how we perceive the spice element in our whisky.

    Kpiz, what happened was Prohibition followed by WWll. During Prohibition legal production of whisky ceased almost completely so the consuming public turned to what was available, Scotch and Canadian blends, moonshine and Gin. It was the widespread use of gin and moonshine that gave rise to the cocktail craze where people added mixers so they could choke down the cheaply made stuff. The result of this unhappy time was an entire generation came of age not knowing what traditional Rye and Bourbon tasted like and being taught Scotch whisky was the good stuff.

    When the distillers had barely recovered after Repeal, WWll came along with grain shortages and severe limits on distilling whisky which limits were not lifted until 1946. Starting with the first distilling season in 1947 it was 1951 before the product was approaching 4 years old so it's no exaggeration to say the effects of Prohibition didn't actually end until about 1952. By then 30 years had passed since the public had enjoyed easy access to traditional whisky and the flavor of Rye had fallen out of fashion.

    Good Rye continued to be made but the die was cast and demand diminished in favor of Blends which were much lighter in taste. Add a mixer to that and we are pretty far away from the rich profile of traditional Rye.

    The new found interest in Traditional Rye whisky is a refreshing move in the right direction but caught the distillers off guard. I mean, how can you plan for a change in fashionable tastes with a public that views beanie babies as collectables.
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  9. #9
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    Don't know that I have much of substance to add to this conversation that hasn't already been said, but I definitely have a preference for rye and rye recipe bourbon. But recently I've also wondered about 'spiciness' in my whiskey, and whether its source is the mashbill, the yeast, or the barrel, and honestly, I think it is a confluence of them all.

    Without more than a decade in the barrel, I agree that the spice of a rye can often come off as muted, whereas I've had some 9 year Four Roses or 7 year old Willett that were spice bombs. Heck, even OGD 114 has a good hit of that old baking spice, more than I get with JBR, which on the surface doesn't make sense, but I suspect that the OGD sees more of the inside of a barrel than the rye. Do they use the same yeast for all Beam products? I wonder if that too is a factor, because if they are different that could also be an explanation.

    In my mind, corn seems to have the most assertive character in terms of mouthfeel between rye, wheat and corn (excepting barley from the conversation). The oiliness of Mellow Corn comes to mind when compared to a Jeff10 100% rye or definitely to the very thin on mouthfeel Bernheim Wheat Whiskey.

    I do get a far more herbal character to rye in general though, and this is often how I find myself describing rye these days, as there are notes of dill, thyme, anise, heck I even get oregano sometimes in the JBR (which I don't love per say, but it is distinctive). This herbal nature turns some off of LDI, but I like it. Sometimes in the aging it lends a chalkiness, like with LSB13, but again, I like that too. The sweetness of the Jeff10 is a big outlier for me and raises my suspicions that there is some additive that Jefferson's isn't being completely honest about. But I still like it.

    I guess it's the variety of flavors that appeal to me. But I definitely don't think that spiciness or bitterness are accurate delineating descriptors when distinguishing between bourbon and rye. Rye is more herbal and complex than bourbon, to me. And I'm often reminded of this quote from Bill Samuels which is both accurate and silly in my opinion: "Rye," he said firmly, "is a back-of-the-palate taste. Back-of-the-palate stuff has never been appealing to Americans. And that's a fact."

    I find ryes to rest in the back of the palate a bit more so than bourbons and definitely more than wheaters, but I have a preference for that, kinda like the funk of a hoppy beer. I think Americans have liked back of the palate flavors and still do, and I for one would love to see a hopped rye on the market. Or even more crazy, a cannabis infused rye (hops and cannabis being closely related, and THC being alcohol soluble), though that would only be 'legal' in Colorado or Washington, and would be a heady concoction to say the least. Maybe an idea for Stranahan's or some other outfit, but I think it'd be a well-incorporated flavor with the more herbal nature of rye. Just my crazy two cents.

  10. #10
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    Re: Rye Conundrum

    Beam uses the same yeast for all it's whisky except Old Grand Dad/Basil Hayden who use the unique OGD yeast strain.
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