Rye Tasting VIII: Old Potrero, Two Ways

(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.)

There are still a few people floating around who haven’t heard of Fritz Maytag and the wonderful things he’s done with all manner of alcoholic beverages for more than 40 years. For a full rundown, I encourage you to Google “Fritz Maytag” and “craft brewing,” to get a small idea of how Maytag helped save American beer from itself, and added fuel to the smouldering craft beer movement.

In the early 1990s, Maytag turned his imagination to spirits, and the first challenge to present itself was rye whiskey. At the time, there was precious little rye on the market, and Maytag saw a niche for a high-end, craft-produced rye. An interest in history also led him in a direction that was contrary to prevailing whiskey wisdom: that is, the longer the whiskey has aged in charred oak casks, the higher the quality of the finished product. After determining that early American whiskies — in other words, early rye — was often minimally aged, and frequently had mashbills composed purely of rye, Maytag set out to create premium versions of the highly charged rotgut that flooded Eastern markets 200 years ago.

Named for the San Francisco hill where the distillery is located, Old Potrero debuted in 1996. The whiskey is a pure-rye single malt, and is crafted in two versions: an 18th-century style whiskey, aged less than two years in lightly toasted — not charred — oak barrels and bottled at cask strength, around 125 proof; and a 19th-century style whiskey, aged slightly longer in charred barrels, and bottled at a more modest 90 proof.

Comparing single malts such as Old Potrero with more typical straight ryes such as Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse required a bit of a balancing act; indeed, even when hidden among an array of more than a dozen other whiskies, the two versions of Old Potrero were so distinctive that it became immediately apparent something unusual was being sampled.

Old Potrero Single Malt 18th-Century Style Whiskey

As this style of the Old Potrero is not aged in charred oak barrels, it can’t under U.S. law be labeled a “rye.” With its minimal aging and barrel-proof bottling, the 18th-century style is a bit of a rough character, and has earned both accolades and brickbats from spirits fiends over the past decade.

The whiskey comes up very pungent in the glass, with a dry, sweet herbaceousness tinged with heather and grass. Its alcohol heat is readily apparent, bringing waves of an aroma that reminded some panelists of grappa, and others of kerosene.

The heat and herbaceousness continue in the flavor. Once tasted, there’s no denying this is a single malt, with rye’s distinctive musty, dry character washing over the palate in aggressive waves.

While the whiskey came across as intriguing, it was a bit too hot and fierce to garner much enthusiasm among the panelists. Two tasters appreciated the whiskey’s unique character, while others found it “offputting” and unmanageable.

Old Potrero Single Malt 19th Century Style Straight Rye Whiskey

At a lower proof and somewhat more tempered by the wood, the 19th-style Old Potrero earned more praise from panelists. As with the 18th century style, this whiskey immediately distinguished itself from the other ryes in the tasting, reminding panelists more of single-malt Scotch or grappa than of American whiskies.

The aroma was dry, almost dusty, with sour, peaty notes and a complex menthol and turpentine character. When tasted, the whiskey had a mild honeyed sweetness, with a long, peppery finish and a lingering herbaceousness. Panelists described the whiskey as “earthy,” and drew comparisons to mushrooms, pomace and cherry pits.

While the 18th century style Old Potrero was a difficult whiskey to love, the 19th century style was much more agreeable. It was the top pick in the first round by two of the panelists (without the Buffalo Trace and Black Maple Hill whiskies taken into account), and placed second on another panelist’s first-round list.

But while the Old Potrero placed so well, it also sparked a debate on what is a rye? As a single malt, and minimally aged at that, the whiskey was very different from every other straight rye we encountered, differing from whiskies such as the Van Winkle or the Rittenhouse similar to the way that a rhum agricole differs from a rum from Jamaica or Puerto Rico. In a totally blind tasting, without the benefit of even knowing what type of spirit is being tried, its quite possible the Old Potrero would be placed in a Scotch or Irish whiskey category, rather than that of an American straight rye.

With its unique character, the Old Potrero is most suited to be enjoyed with nothing more than an ice cube or a few drops of water; mixing it in a Manhattan or another rye cocktail will likely result in a surprising and not-entirely pleasant result.

Next: Black Maple Hill

9 Responses to Rye Tasting VIII: Old Potrero, Two Ways

  1. Interesting. I have always been afraid of the Old Portero 18th century. It’s gratifying to hear my fears were well-placed. I’m somewhat surprised at how well the 19th century fared, even if “only” against the likes of Van Winlke, Rittenhouse 21, Michter’s 10 and Wild Turkey. Looking forward to Episode IX!

  2. I’ve greatly enjoyed your articles on one of my favorite spirits, though I must say I am insanely jealous that you can obtain so many varieties of the same.

    You are making me drift back to my grand desire for scotch whisky. Just mention the word “peaty” one more time, and I may be lost.

  3. I sampled the 18th Century Style whiskey one night at Employees Only. It was very funky stuff. “Waxy” was how I described it to my girlfriend, who immediately pronounced that it smelled like a used Band-Aid. The accuracy of her description was perfect, and I couldn’t finish the drink because of the vivid image that was conjured each time the glass approached my nose.

  4. I tried both the 18th century as well as the 19th century Old Portero Rye Whiskey. They both could use alot more barrel maturation. The 19th century was much more palatable. Rye Whiskey is the defining whiskey of a masterdistiller and its valant to attempt to offer a rye whiskey in a microdistillery. With more age, both would be worthy of their price. The microdistillery industry in the US is in its infancy where spirit maturation is concerned. Not many regions of the country are conducive to the convection required for barrel maturation. Perhaps at least 4 years for both bottlings would make a difference.

  5. I’ve been clicking around the web today checking out rye whiskies to use in my Sazerac. The comments regarding Old Potrero are interesting– I especially liked Morgan’s! I’ve just started getting into whiskies but my favorite (and I think it’s 100% rye) is Tangle Ridge– Canadian. The one I really want to find and use in this drink is, of course, Old Overholt. Since that’s supposed to be “the” Sazerac rye whiskey, I want to try that first and then move on to other ryes. Has anyone had Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey?

  6. I have to disagree with the comments about the 18th. century. I find it delicious, with a taste somewhat like honey, albeit with an extreme alcohol heat. I encourage everyone to try it, and if it isn’t for you, then it isn’t. But you might be surprised by it, if you give it a chance. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but a great treat if it’s up your alley.

  7. I managed to score a bottle of the 18th century style Old Potrero at BevMo a few months ago. While awfully hot, it has an interesting taste to me, sipped neat with a little water on the side. I started looking for the 19th Century for comparison, but could not find any. A quick note to Anchor Distilling got me a sad reply. They are sold out of Old Potrero, and are not aware of any bottles to be found anywhere 🙁 But I did find a bottle of Sazerac (in a Utah state liquor store of all places!)

  8. After imbibing a sizable portion of the 18th century elixir, I blacked out and, if the authorities are to be believed, I apparently peed in a horse.

  9. To Blesheuvel: I’ve become quite a fan of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey. It has a sweet, almost cognac-like start to it with a full whiskey taste that comes up to fill your palate after that. Very smooth, and not unlike the pendleton 1910 rye stacks up against more grassy and herbal tasting ryes. Give it a try! (For history’s sake, read some Hunter Thompson while you’re doing it; George Stranahan, an heir to Champion spark plug, was one of his drinking buddies in Aspen and started the distillery.)

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