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Rye Conundrum


smokinjoe
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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?

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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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I have to agree with both of you boys. I think that's why I'm not really a fan of ryes, for the most part. I've had a few that were not quite so 'short on character'... Willet 4-year-old, Handy (17?), Saz to a lesser degree... that's about the extent of the few that I didn't find boring. Not too big a surprise, as I tend to like my Bourbon with more wood and a bit sweeter than some other folks; so even some of the younger, mellower Bourbons that find a lot of favor leave me wanting a bit more character.

Just one man's opinion.

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jtexaslonestar
I have to agree with both of you boys. I've had a few that were not quite so 'short on character'... Willet 4-year-old, Handy

Just one man's opinion.

Joe, I really like this thread. I don't find a lot of differences in most ryes that I have in my cabinet versus the bourbons.

Squire, I like your idea.

Rich--Great examples. If ok, I might add Double Rye! from HW but their other ryes really have some strong bourbon notes IMO.

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I tend to think of rye as what makes bourbon "bolder", "sharper", "spicier" - when compared with a wheated bourbon. But I think you're on to something - many rye whiskies aren't like that to a huge degree. Although many ryes are "barely ryes" compared to bourbon, when I think of one like a Jeff 10 that is all rye - it isn't sharp to me, but it is a "different" kind of sweet, and maybe a bit more savory. More like baking spices. The finish is more peppery for me with most ryes than bourbons, and I agree that there are a lot of dud ryes out there (OO, JBR, etc). Maybe it is the balance? In a bourbon, a bit more rye give is more zip, but when it is ALL rye, it almost seems to mellow out to some degree.

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I like the baking spice notes you guys have used. If I'm in the mood for turmeric or white pepper kick I grab rye...basically savory in my head. If I want sweet I tilt to bourbon (caramel, toffee, burnt sugar).

So for me I explain as "some times you want a salty snack, other times sweet". Though I freely admit not all bourbons and ryes fall neatly into those descriptors.

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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.

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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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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?

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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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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!

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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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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.

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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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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."

When vatting I have been using some ryes to get more flavor to the back of the palate, so I would agree with the first part of what Mr. Samuels said. In fact I think that's the appeal of Forgiven and Bourye, the addition of just the right amount of rye extends the palate making a more satisfying sipper.

As for a description of differences, for me the herbal, vegital quality of Rye stands out as much as any spice characteristics. Some LDI stuff is like a spruce, mint mash up. The Old Portrero line up is perhaps the most instructive because all three are nearly 100% rye. Of the three the 18th Century is the most herbal and the most spicy. Planty of vegital notes in all three that seem to moderate as it ages (Hotelings).

Manufacturers probably don't use a different yeast for rye, but we can hope that some micros will experiment enough to come up with something unique and delicious. 4R shows us just how big a difference a different yeast can make.

I recently had a delicious Bourbon that was rebarreled and extra aged in a toasted, not charred, barrel. HW 21 was aged in used barrels. Those early barrel pick ryes from Willett were from barrels that were consolidated and extra aged. Because the legal definition of rye is less specific, between yeast, mash bill and aging there is plenty of room for experimentation.

Edited by sailor22
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Looking over my notes of the very small amount of rye whiskies I have tried, the notes that stand out differently for each one are:

Bulleit - pickles

Knob Creek - hot pepper

Rittenhouse - baking spices

Baby Saz - eucalyptus

Canadian ryes - spearmint

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

Coming from a craft beer background, I find this such an interesting part of distilleries. With so many different yeasts used in a brewery, I was expecting to find multiple yeasts used in distilleries as a way to separate the different brands within that distillery, even possibly blending them together. Is Four Roses the only one that really does something like that?

-- Ravensfire

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John Hall, owner if Forty Creek in Canada, ages his rye in lightly charred barrels because he says a heavier char covers up the rye notes rather than bringing them out.

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Raven I expect the desire simply wasn't there. If you're a Heaven Hill or a Beam there's no economic incentive to make special runs for brands that are subsidiary to your own labels. Old Grand Dad was an exception because Beam realized they had a national best seller and it didn't really compete with JBW anyway.

Old Overholt wasn't in enough demand to justify special treatment such as continuing the use of non Beam yeast. There just wasn't that much difference for the average palate to distinguish a flavor shift so Overholt was a throwaway for brand loyalists or those who were shopping merely for price.

Edited by squire
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I would describe rye as earthy and herbal rather than spicy. Some bourbons are definitely spicier than some ryes out there, but the ryes maintain earthy, herbal notes that bourbons only hint at.

A tasting order that I enjoy is to start with a very bourbony rye like Ritt BIB and progress to a Willett rye, then go back to the Ritt. The rye characteristics are more apparent, and tasting in that order helps to pinpoint the rye flavors.

Sent from my SCH-I535 using Tapatalk

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I would describe rye as earthy and herbal rather than spicy. Some bourbons are definitely spicier than some ryes out there, but the ryes maintain earthy, herbal notes that bourbons only hint at.

A tasting order that I enjoy is to start with a very bourbony rye like Ritt BIB and progress to a Willett rye, then go back to the Ritt. The rye characteristics are more apparent, and tasting in that order helps to pinpoint the rye flavors.

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This is a very good description. Some higher proof ryes may seem "spicier" but they are really just hotter. I think I like higher proof ryes because they add a little more complexity to the flavor. WFE is hotter than Jeff10 but contains less rye. I think the spiciness of rye is more noticeable in bourbon because it removes some of the sweetness of the corn.

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Raven I expect the desire simply wasn't there. If you're a Heaven Hill or a Beam there's no economic incentive to make special runs for brands that are subsidiary to your own labels. Old Grand Dad was an exception because Beam realized they had a national best seller and it didn't really compete with JBW anyway.

Old Overholt wasn't in enough demand to justify special treatment such as continuing the use of non Beam yeast. There just wasn't that much difference for the average palate to distinguish a flavor shift so Overholt was a throwaway for brand loyalists or those who were shopping merely for price.

Very good points.

-- Ravensfire

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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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