Rye Tasting VII: the Sazerac family of ryes

(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.)

After a series of rather time-consuming life distractions derailed this coverage for a couple of weeks, I thought I should try to wrap up the tasting notes while you can still find the magazine floating around on newsstands.

Prior to the tasting, I was really looking forward to digging into the three rye whiskies produced by Buffalo Trace Distilleries: the highly regarded Sazerac 18-year-old straight rye; the “baby” Sazerac, a 6-year-old version of the older whiskey; and a brand-new bottling, Thomas Handy Sazerac rye.

Too bad the timing didn’t work out so well: On the appointed date for our rye tasting, the shipment from Buffalo Trace had not yet arrived, so the panel had to make do with the remainder of my bottle of the 6-year-old rye that I’d brought home from New Orleans. The next day, however, the box arrived, so later that week I brought blind samples to two of the other three panelists (sorry, Robert), and collected comments on the whiskies then (two additional whiskies were included in this second round). This two-part tasting kind of skewed the overall results; that’s why I discarded the idea of a rating system, in favor of simple tasting notes and impressions of each of the whiskies, along with each panelist’s preferred whiskies.

Sazerac 6-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey

The 90-proof, six-year-old Sazerac was released in late 2005, and quickly became a hit among rye fiends across the country. While in New Orleans last summer, I saw bottles of this on the back bar of nearly every place I went, and enjoyed it as the standard mixing rye for a number of drinks I ordered.

The baby Saz fared well, mostly, with the tasting panel. On the nose it came up with a fruity, peachy character, tinged with molasses and brown sugar, with a lot of character. On the palate, though, the whiskey shifted gears — a rye that initially nosed sweet came up surprisingly dry and crisp. A couple of panelists were looking for the fruit and sugar notes in the aroma to carry over in the flavor, but while the whiskey had a full body, most panelists described the taste as “muddy” and flat. One panelist summed up the whiskey this way: “If I were to use this one, I’d do it in a cocktail as opposed to drinking it straight.”

Sazerac 18-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey

At the time of our tasting, the 90-proof, 18-year-old Sazerac enjoyed a reputation as possibly the finest rye on the market. But with well-crafted, well-aged ryes appearing from Rittenhouse and Black Maple Hill, and with Buffalo Trace releasing another take on the whiskey, the Thomas Handy Sazerac, the venerable Sazerac seemed in for a battle.

Three of the four panelists reviewed this whiskey. As compared to the baby Saz, the 18-year-old came up very dry and earthy on the nose, with a deep oakiness that was very appealing. On the palate, it was easy to see why this whiskey had garnered such praise: it had the hallmark sour spiciness of ryes, tempered by the aging that gave it a round, lush body and a crisp, woody character. But while the whiskey was enjoyable, it seemed that the character of the barrel had somewhat overtaken the whiskey, and for all its pleasant aroma and taste, the rye had a surprisingly short finish. Once the whiskey’s identity was revealed to the tasters, we were all surprised that, while we were all positive on the rye, none of us were bowled over by it.

Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye

The latest bottling of a Sazerac rye, the Thomas Handy is also the most difficult to find. Bottled at barrel strength — our sample weighed in at 132.7 proof — the Handy is an unfiltered, single-barrel expression of the Sazerac line.

Tasted blind, this whiskey cleared the decks. Waves of caramel and molasses greeted the nose, and the aroma had a dry, herbaceous quality that one panelist described as “musty, in a good way,” and another termed a “rum nose.” On the palate, this herbaceous mustiness continued in spades, with a snappy sourdough bite brushed with floral, sugary notes that lingered in a wonderfully long finish.

The Thomas Handy Sazerac rye is simply amazing, and panelists agreed it represents some of the best work being done by American distilleries today. While rankings are difficult in a two-part tasting, all three of the four panelists who tasted the Handy gauged it second of the 18 whiskies tasted. It’s simply a damn good rye, and should occupy a place of honor in every whisk(e)y enthusiast’s liquor cabinet.

Next: something’s up in San Francisco

9 Responses to Rye Tasting VII: the Sazerac family of ryes

  1. On my trip to Houston last weekend I stared at the Thomas Handy Rye for quite a while without buying it, but I certainly will now. Two questions for you though:

    1) How much does it cost you up there? I saw it for just under $50, wondering if thats a good deal.

    2) How suitable is this for mixing? 132 proof seems rather high for anything but Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds, but I certainly have no experience to back this up. If you were to make, say, a Manhattan, would you cut it with some water first or just mix away?

    Thoroughly enjoying these notes, glad to seem them continue.


  2. I can’t find it in the never-helpful Washington state liquor stores, but I’ve seen it in the $50 range online. For what you’re getting, I’d consider it a steal.

    Mixing-wise, I’m not so sure. While I proudly wear my cocktail credentials on my sleeve, this is one whiskey I’m apprehensive about mixing. This is partially because of the strength, which as you mention makes it difficult to work with beyond a whiskey-heavy drink such as a Sazerac or an Old Fashioned (as an aside, I made an over-the-top Sazerac with this a couple of months ago, using Jade’s Edouard absinthe–otherworldly), but also because of its quality: this is a whiskey that almost demands to be taken neat, and with good reason. I can see maybe mixing it with a little water or club soda for a superlative highball, but really, all this rye needs to shine is a glass, maybe a few drops of water to help it blossom, and a cool fall or winter evening. Cigars are optional.

  3. Now I’m really, really curious which ryes were rated No. 1!

    Plus, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about my hometown spirit…

  4. Hey Paul,

    Larry and Katie are over and we’re watching the California Fontana Nextel Cup race. Larry is scrounging through my booze inventory, trying to figure out our next drink. Our first were some Dogfish Head beers (oh, the scandal of it all, I know…) then we had a Manhattan with Rittenhouse. Gordon is in 2nd, Biffle has moved up to 16th and Regan is in 18th, so Larry is pretty happy since they’re who he picked for his fantasy league this week. Katie has the NYT Sunday so she’s happy. I have the dog snoozing next to me on the couch and I’m a Gordon fan so I’m pretty happy too. Our question is: what cocktail should we make, given our situation? Any help you can give, and quickly, is appreciated.

  5. Paul,

    There’s only 30 or so laps left. Gordon’s car is going away from him – his lap speeds are only averaging around 170mph or so – he should be up around 174 if he’s gonna win it. He’s dropped to 5th and I think Bowyer is going to pass him soon; many others will probably follow. The mood here has changed quite a bit (except for Katie). Larry created a new drink, the “Walla Walla Gentleman” (an apple jack-based beverage – Larry can give you the recipe if you wish), but that drink was designed for happier times. WAIT – a caution just came out, so perhaps there’s a chance! We need a drink of hope, Paul! Please send emergency drink mix immediately!

  6. Well Paul,

    The race is over. even though we did not hear from you, all ended well. #24 came in second, so Larry and I are both happy. Katie was well fed by great food that Larry made on the grill, so she’s happy. Larry tossed together a drink that he learned from Bao 111 (a restaurant in Manhattan), some Vietnamese-ish drink with lime, spiced rum, cayenne and ginger. It’s a perfect match for the end of the race, where the tensions were high and nothing was settled ’til the last lap. A high octane drink for a high octane sport. Now, however, we have switched over to watch the coverage of the oscars. Once again, we need you. While Larry and Katie brought a bottle of Prosecco just in case, none of us feel confident enough in our mixology to know how to handle this odd occasion. We do not know what to wear, but more importantly, we do not know what to drink…so once again, we call on you…

  7. Man, the suspense is killing me. Though we are narrowing in on the winner. I’m guessing you’re a save-the-best-for-last type of guy, so it will no be one of the Old Porteros. Probably you saved them for second-to-last because they are the most distinctive (I’ve not had the pleasure of trying either, but I would imagine, with a 100% rye mash bill, they’d HAVE to be). So that leaves the Black Maple Hill 18 and 23. I’m hoping it’s the 18, as I am much more likely to be able to afford it!

  8. I’ve had Sazeracs with a handful of the ryes in your tasting, and to my mind, the Sazerac 18 has won my heart every time. Also, I prefer the Nouvelle-Orleans to the Edouard, as it imparts a bit of what I think is chamomile to the multitude of layers. It is also very likely closer to a classic Sazerac cocktail, since clearly Ted was thinking of early Herbsaint when he fashioned it. BTW, for those on the East side of the Cascade, we now have a source for bitters, including Peychaud’s at the Rocket Market (see, your friendly Yellow pages).

    Cheers from Spokane

  9. Paul, of all the rye reviews, this one was perhaps my favorite – for many reasons.

    1) The ‘baby’ Saz is really an outstanding rye – dollar for dollar. A good mixing rye and good when sipped neat, also. And, it’s easily found if one just spends a moment looking around.

    2) The Thomas Handy? As you suggest, it’s really special. We’ve gone through a couple of bottles of the Handy here at Liberty, and it never fails to warm my heart a tad when I pour a taste of the Handy for someone and their eyes get really big, because forever more (well, at least a little while), they are ruined for most other ryes. Really – it’s a great whiskey.

    3) The Sazerac 18. Now, here’s an interesting story. A number of months back, maybe almost a year ago now, two really knowledgeable rye drinkers stopped by for some whiskey. After tasting from a few other bottles, I took the 18 off of the shelf and opened it for the first time for each of us. We had tasted a number of other special ryes, bu ot this wasur first taste of the 18. All three of us reminisced fondly over the 17 – one of the best whiskies that we had ever had the pleasure of sipping – so the 18? Well, it must be even better, right? One more year to pull at the oak? Fantastic.

    But, upon tasting the 18, we were all surprised. I wondered if my taste buds had failed me, but immediately we all seemed to agree – this was not the Sazerac 17, and this is where my agreement with your rye whiskey tasting takes a different path.

    To me, the 18 seemed to be relatively bland, with an earthy taste where the rich molasses used to be, and a sharp finish where the fine taste of the 17 would just stretch out until it was interrupted. What happened? (I’m tasting a bit of it right now, and nothing’s changed.)

    One of the gents that was here (sorry, but I have forgotten your name, so if you are reading this I owe you a drink) knows some of the fine folks at Buffalo Trace, and about a week later, this interesting story was related to me.

    Now, I imagine that this story is no secret, but what was told to me was that Buffalo Trace thought the 17 to be just right (as was surely true), so they took whatever remaining whiskey that they had and emptied it from the barrels into stainless to capture that perfect age. What happened? Well, the theory was that there was too much air in the tank(s) that held the Saz, and all of that air ‘soured’ the batch.

    I have no way to substantiate this story, but I’m willing to bet that this is no secret. If anyone out there has a bottle of the 17 and 18 next to each other (you lucky souls), give them each a taste and let us know what you think.

    Anyway. Enough gossiping. On to the Old Potrero!

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