The event was called “Pastrami on Rye,” a celebration of New York-made rye whiskeys that connected the dots between grain used to bake rye bread as well as to make rye whiskey, accompanied by plenty of pastrami and fragrant cuts of brisket.
Many of the whiskies poured that evening were made in accordance with New York’s “Empire Rye” designation, which debuted in 2017. Though rye whiskey generally means a whiskey produced with at least 51% rye grain, distillers who established Empire Rye agreed on requirements that are considerably more stringent. A full 75% of the mash must be made from rye grain grown in the state; it must be distilled, barreled and aged at a single New York State distillery; and it must be aged for a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels. Some of the producers who use this designation include New York Distilling and Five & 20.
This demonstrates some of the excitement that currently surrounds rye whiskey. The lean, spicy American whiskey, a counterpart to sweeter, corn-based Bourbon or malt-based Scotch, has developed a following among distillers. Some emphasize that rye can express terroir. It’s also fascinating to see how producers play with the amount of rye in the mix, calibrating it from 51% (the bare minimum required), often softened with corn, barley or even wheat, all the way up to the spicy fireworks of 100% rye mashes.
Meanwhile, other producers are choosing to polish up their whiskey with cask finishes. These range from Port barrels used to age High West’s A Midwinter Night’s Dram, to New York Distilling’s use of applejack barrels, and Whistlepig’s The Boss Hog The Samurai Scientist, finished in former umeshu (plum wine), barrels.
While it’s not a traditional pairing by any means, if the opportunity presents itself, we heartily recommend enjoying one of these rye whiskies alongside fresh rye bread and a few warm slices of pastrami.
A Midwinter Nights Dram, Act 7 Scene 6; 96 points, $100. This polished annual release is always a pleasure, and the seventh release in the series is no different. Concentrated caramel tinged with oak and red fruit entice the nose and palate. Adding water eases the alcohol bite, and brings more lush fruit and spice forward. A blend of straight rye whiskies finished in French oak Port barrels, bottled by High West. Limited edition.
Parker’s Heritage Collection 13th Edition; Heavy Char Rye Whiskey; 96 points, $150. This is a special sipper, with intense, thick caramel and toffee on nose and palate, and a long mocha fade accented by peppery spice. Adding water – a fair amount is needed for this overproof rye—brings out dark chocolate tones and a nice plushness. This eight-year-old rye is aged in extra-charred barrels (level five, not the traditional level three) to extract deeper oak and spice tones. As always, this release honors late Master Distiller Parker Beam and benefits ALS research and patient care in his memory.
Ragtime Rye Applejack Barrel Finished; 95 points, $45. This unusual limited edition starts with two-year-old rye, then aged for 90 days in barrels that previously held applejack made by Black Dirt Distillery. The end result is delightful and surprisingly delicate, offering fleeting hints of butterscotch and baked apple, finishing long with nutmeg, cinnamon sprinkle and lemon zest. Sip or mix.
Peerless Rye Whiskey; 93 points, $90. This four-year-old, barrel-proof rye is a beast, but it can be tamed with a bit of water. The intense caramel aroma signals what is to come. With enough water, this big, flavorful, downright chewy whiskey offers dense and delicious maple sugar, creamy caramel, red fruit and candied ginger heat.
Whistlepig The Boss Hog The Samurai Scientist; 93 points, $500. This unique bottling is straight rye whiskey finished in umeshu (plum wine) barrels, bottled at an extraordinarily high proof. Don’t even bother without adding water. But when you hit the right dilution level, drying plum skin gives way to vanilla, cocoa fruit and gentle spice, finishing drying and grippy.
Wolves Whiskey: First Run; 93 points, $150. This unusual luxury spirit mixes rye with hop-flavored whiskey distilled from beer at Charbay Distillery. The aroma suggests sarsaparilla and hops, while the first sips read as distinctly beer-like, drying and slightly effervescent, with a long, slightly sour finish. Adding water lends a softer, more succulent feel, still beer-like but tinged with fudge and nuts.
Catoctin Creek Rabble Rouser Rye Whiskey 2018 Bottled in Bond; 91 points, $100. The aroma is spicy and bright, with a hint of red fruit. The palate opens lean and lemony, tinged with vanilla, and spice. Adding water amplifies the flavor and teases out hints of espresso and clove. Made with 100% rye.
Bare Knuckle Straight Rye Whiskey; 90 points, $50. Made with 100% Virginia rye, this small batch whiskey offers cedar and vanilla aromas. Though it’s light and silky on the palate, it’s also quite fiery. Tamed with water, roasted grain and dark chocolate notes hit front and center, finishing with plenty of spice and citrus. Aged 37 months.
Gertrude’s 100% Rye Whiskey; 90 points, $68. Made from locally grown grain, this rye is remarkably robust for a whiskey aged just seven months. Concentrated caramel and vanilla bean lead the nose, while the lush palate is big and toasty, with lots of toffee and oak, finishing drying and spiced. Needs some water to soften the alcohol blow, but the flavors hold up just fine, even with plenty of dilution.
Ragtime Rye New York Straight Rye Whiskey; 90 points, $40. Made with rye grain grown in New York state, and aged for three years. A mild maple aroma leads into the distinctly sweet-and-spiced palate, which opens with maple and marzipan and exits with plenty of baking spice intensity. Mix into Manhattans and other cocktails.
Five & 20 Spirits Rye Whiskey; 89 points, $35. Expect cedar, oak and vanilla on nose and palate. The robust flavor finishes long, with hints of dried fruit and hops. Adding water draws out a bit more sweetness, coaxing out honey and hints of dried cranberry, plus a flourish of cinnamon and spice. Small batch, aged a minimum of 18 months. Best Buy.