(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