Rye Tasting I: The Old and the Familiar

(part of a series of posts on a recent panel tasting of 18 American rye whiskies that starts here. For more information on rye whiskey and additional tasting notes, pick up the January/February 2007 issue of Imbibe magazine.)

Our panel was very lucky to have obtained samples of some of the rarest and most highly esteemed ryes currently available — bottlings such as the Rittenhouse 21-Year-Old and the Thomas Handy Sazerac come to mind — but I was especially curious to see how, in a blind tasting, three of the easiest-to-find rye stalwarts fared in the bigger mix.

Two rye whiskies currently rule the U.S. market: Old Overholt and Jim Beam Rye. While Old Overholt has a long history as a brand, both ryes are currently made by Jim Beam. To give you an idea of how much these brands dominate the market, the recent New York Times story on rye mentioned that 32,000 cases of these brands were shipped in 2005; in contrast, a spokesman for Heaven Hill estimated to me that the highly prized Rittenhouse 100-proof rye ships fewer than 1,000 cases per year (and as further contrast, Jim Beam’s 32,000 cases of rye are grossly eclipsed by the 3.9 million cases of bourbon it shipped that same year).

While its sales lag far behind the two Beam brands, Wild Turkey produces a 101-proof rye that is also found with relative ease across the country.

Here’s how these three brands fared with the tasting panel (and I should note, the order in which the whiskies appear here are not the order in which they were tasted; the latter was by random, and the former is for my convenience in relating the tasting notes):

Old OverholtOld Overholt

With a label that looks like it hasn’t been updated in 85 years and a name that reaches back more than a century, Old Overholt is the sturdy standard-bearer of American ryes. For most bars in America — those that carry any rye at all, anyway — “rye” is synonymous with “Old Overholt.” I’d always thought of Old Overholt as a good starter rye — different enough from bourbon to tell the difference, and at 80 proof, mild enough not to spook the novice drinker — but as I’ve found myself with greater access to ryes such as Sazerac 6-year-old and the Rittenhouse 100 proof, I’ve let my bottle of Old Overcoat gather dust. Tasting it in a blind session was a way to see how it fared among its more highly regarded rivals.

In the glass, Old Overholt started out well; panelists said it had a bright, fruity aroma, with touches of strawberries and roasted apples, and one panelist even said at first blush it smelled like a Calvados. Tasted neat, it presented at first the same fruity, apple quality detected in the nose, followed by a touch of black pepper, or what one panelist referred to as a “sharp, saw-tooth taste that you don’t get from regular pepper.” Seems promising, right? Too bad — after these first notes, the flavor quickly dissipated, and left a very short, unremarkable finish. Panelists remarked that the Old Overholt was “kind of ordinary; I don’t like it and I don’t dislike it,” and that it was “low on complexity.”

Verdict: At around $16 a bottle, Old Overholt is still a decent starter rye, and is handy for cocktails with citrus or other mixers that obscure the taste of the whiskey; just don’t expect any culinary masterwork from this venerable brand. It’s also intriguing to wonder how this whiskey would fare if bottled at 100 proof; I think if Jim Beam tested out a higher-proof version of Old Overholt, it just might enjoy some of the same acclaim the Rittenhouse has received in recent years.

Jim Beam Straight RyeJim Beam Straight Rye

Old Overholt’s companion brand, the Jim Beam Straight Rye is also priced under $20 and bottled at 80 proof, and is pretty easy to find across the country. And as with Old Overholt, the tasting panel was similarly unimpressed when presented with the Beam in a blind tasting. Panelists picked up a bright, fruity nose from the Beam, with touches of orange, peach and nectarine. One panelist noted that the Beam rye struck him as hot and overproof on the nose, but when tasted, that characteristic quickly fell away. While the whiskey maintained its slightly sweet fruity flavor on the palate, the taste seemed muddled and low in complexity, with little of the sour spiciness that is to be anticipated in a rye.

Verdict: Another “not good, but not bad” vote from the panel. The Beam is a servicable whiskey in cocktails, but doesn’t have enough character to be enjoyed straight, or in drinks such as a Manhattan, that highlight the whiskey’s flavor. If you need an all-around mixing rye, the Beam will suffice; but if you have other options, you can do much better for about the same price.

Wild Turkey  Wild Turkey 101 Straight Kentucky Rye

The Turkey rye was the first rye whiskey I ever tasted, and it’s always been something of a touchstone rye for me. At 101 proof, it packs more of a flavor punch than either of the two more commonly found rye whiskies; when tasted blind with an array of other ryes, the kickin’ chicken held its ground well.

Panelists noted a distinct and appealing sourness on the nose, with one picking up a complex Roquefort-like aroma, and a hotter, more alcoholic fire. On the palate, the Turkey immediately distinguishes itself as a rye, with a spicy sourness and a peppery earthiness followed by a long, robust finish.

Verdict: The Wild Turkey has a pure rye character, suitable for sipping neat and hearty enough to be mixed in cocktails without losing its identity. At the end of the tasting, one of the panelists placed the Wild Turkey in his top 3, and all considered it as belonging in the top tier — a pleasant surprise, given both its ubiquity and its price (around $20).

Coming up: Rittenhouse, three ways …

12 Responses to Rye Tasting I: The Old and the Familiar

  1. Nice! Thanks for this. I need to pick up some rye soon and it’s helpful to have a rundown like yours.

  2. As far as the inexpensive ryes go, I buy Rittenhouse 100 when I can find it and Wild Turkey 101 when I can’t. The first bottle of rye I had at home was the Beam, which was fine, but didn’t really turn me on to rye. Old Overholt was a little better, but I didn’t really start digging on the rye until I had the Rittenhouse.

    I got to sample LeNell’s Red Hook Rye during its premiere weekend at her shop. Delicious. Priced competitive to the Rittenhouse 21, it’s also an older rye (22 years), bottled at cask strength.

    I should hoard my pennies so I can buy more of these special-edition ryes as soon as they come to market. LeNell’s edition is already sold out.

  3. I happen to be drinking the Rittenhouse 100 right now. It’s got an edge to it that the 21 doesn’t have, as you’d expect. I still think my favorite is the Old Potrero, which was the first rye I ever had (yes, I’m a newbie at rye, but so are most people.) thanks!

  4. I love Wild Turkey rye, I always recommend it for people who want to try a rye. Unfortunately, you have already covered all the ryes readily available to me without a 2 hour drive.

    Also, wondering what happened to introduction to this series?


  5. Sam Kinsey once posted at eGullet that The Blinker (rye, grapefruit juice, raspberry syrup or grenadine) is a much better cocktail with Old Overholt than it is with other “better” ryes. I agree. The couple Rittenhouse Blinkers I’d made were okay but nothing special. The Overcoat Blinker was quite tasty–enough so that I’m likely to replace the bottle when it’s gone. Fortunately, it’s only $12-13 here in Chicago so it’s hardly an imposition.

    Rittenhouse is also $12-13 in Chicago. If you aren’t opposed to mail order both samswine.com and binnys.com have good selections of rye whiskeys, good prices and good customer service. No affiliation, etc.

    Any chance you’ll be getting your hands on the Kentucky Bourbon Distiller’s “Vintage” 21 and 23 year old ryes?

    Looking forward to future installments…

  6. Nice rundown on the ryes

    I happen to love the Handy Sazerac.

    Old overholt used to be bottled in bond I don’t know why they changed the proof. How can you write to Beam Brands to let them know?

    I always buy a case of Pikesville while going down to Washington D.C. Heaven hill needs to get a clue and start distributing to the other states.

    I am still a Wild Turkey Rye 101 fan I always seem to gravitate towards it.

    Rittenhouse and baby Sazerac are also favs.

  7. This is a superb rundown of the big 3. I just bought my first bottle of rye this evening (Old Overcoat, only $10 at my liquor store) and while it made a marvelous Manhattan, I’m kind of wishing I tried the Wild Turkey instead ($18). At least I didn’t waste my money on the $15 Jim Beam Rye.

    By the way Google, if you’re listening, you need to bump this page up higher when someone searches for “Rye Whiskey”.

  8. it’s funny because although the higher priced premium ryes like Michter are great after one sip, I personally prefer the cheap rye’s like Jim Beam when in the mood for a tumbler of the stuff.

    Rittenhouse has that nice combination of cidery rye flavor with some Bourbon flavor underneath, but again, all that body is not what I want from a rye. I like how thin and crisp Jim Bean rye is. It’s spicy and refreshing, which is what I want in my rye.

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