Rye Tasting IX: Black Maple Hill

(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.)

Prior to the rye tasting, I knew very little about Black Maple Hill. I knew that they were a small, independent bottler of “reclaimed” older stock from other distilleries, and that the prices they asked for their bourbons and ryes were typically beyond my pay grade, except for special occasions.

While working on the story, however, I learned a few things about Black Maple Hill. First, the label is owned by CVI Brands, a very small company based in California, that sources out ryes and bourbons for bottling under the Black Maple Hill label, and that also imports premium single malts, cognacs and armagnacs for distribution in the United States. The company also sets its standards rather high, purchasing as much of a spirit as it can once it’s found a type that meets its specifications. This also means that the company would rather lose a product than continue a label over an inferior spirit; for example, Black Maple Hill bottles bourbons in 14, 16 and 21 year old versions, but once supplies of its standard 11-year-old bourbon were depleted, and a replacement of equal quality wasn’t found, the 11-year-old label was eliminated.

Black Maple Hill releases less than 2,000 cases of whiskey in the U.S. annually; of this, 300 cases at most are of rye. For the past four years, Black Maple Hill has marketed an 18-year-old rye whiskey, typically for around $85. This past fall, the company released a 23-year-old rye for around $125 a bottle. Our tasting panel was fortunate enough to obtain samples of each of the whiskies for the second round of tasting, conducted by three of the original four panelists, and tasted alongside ryes from Buffalo Trace.

Black Maple Hill 18-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey

The 18-year-old Black Maple Hill is a single-barrel rye, bottled at 95 proof. Unlike the similarly aged Sazerac 18-year, the Black Maple Hill came up very sweet and fruity on the nose, with a complex woodiness and an intriguing depth. On the palate, the whiskey continued its waves of sweetness, with touches of apples and pears mixed with brown sugar and leather. Touches of mild sourdough in the luscious middle were the main clues that this was a rye, and — most remarkable to me — the whiskey had an incredibly long and luxurious finish, with bright fruity notes that danced on the palate long after the whiskey was swallowed.

Black Maple Hill 23-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey

The newest bottling from Black Maple Hill also clocks in at 95 proof. At five years older than the 18-year, this whiskey is surprisingly light, with a very bright and sweet aroma that comes across somewhat hot. Once tasted, the heat evaporates, replaced with an oaky smoothness. As with the 18-year, notes of pear, apple, sourdough and brown sugar dominate, but the effect is mellowed by the additional aging, and the finish is like a train leaving the station — slow, prolonged, and touched with notes of gladness and sorrow. This whiskey was so good it made me downright emotional.

All three panelists tasting the Black Maple Hill revised our initial rankings and placed the 23-year at the top of our lists. While no slouch, the 18-year was in a tough competition with the Thomas Handy Sazerac, and placed ever-so-slightly behind it in a very tight race.

After tasting these 18 ryes, I’m proud to say that the 23-year-old bottling of Black Maple Hill was the finest rye whiskey we came across, and it was my personal favorite as well. It’s also one of the rarest; around the holidays, I decided to buy a Christmas present for myself, but couldn’t find a bottle of the 23-year-old anywhere; I made do with some of the 18-year-old BMH instead, with few regrets. If you come across a bottle of either of these ryes, do yourself a favor and grab it immediately. And should you find an extra bottle of the 23-year-old, grab it for me — I’m saving a very special spot in my liquor cabinet just for it.

Thanks for playing along for this two-month-long series of tasting notes. But lest you think it’s all over, I have two additional ryes to cover, that I’ve come across since the Imbibe story went to press: Templeton Rye and Old Potrero’s Hotalings Rye. Stay tuned.

13 Responses to Rye Tasting IX: Black Maple Hill

  1. David Santucci says:

    Thanks a lot! This was a great series. I’m going to get myself a bottle of the BMH 23!

  2. Daniel Sickler says:

    Would you know were I can find Black Maple Hill Rye well aged as well as others.Thank you Dan

  3. Michael says:

    You can get BMH 23 and 18 at Sherry-Lehman. They have a store in Manhattan and a website, and I can verify that they do in fact carry BMH.

    I bought the 18yr 3 weeks ago and finished it quickly – it was unbelievably good.

    I bought 2 bottles of the 23yr yesterday. After cracking the first bottle open, I realized that both are from Cask #1. Is that very unusual, to have two bottles from the same cask – and cask #1, to boot?

    I find the 23 to be much gentler than the 18, sweeter, and with a bit more warmth.

    Go get some, and enjoy!

    Thanks for the excellent review.

  4. Lynn Morici says:

    I have an unopened bottle of Red StaR DRY GIN THAT WAS PRODUCED IN 1917 BY wOOLNER DISTILLING CO.. wOULD YOU KNOW IF IT IS WORTH ANYTHING? THANKS

  5. Just read through all the rye tasting notes. Thank you! I have a bit of a shopping list now…

    Here’s a nudge to write a bit about the Hotaling’s and Templeton. I love the former, especially in a Manhattan with Carpano Antica, never tried the latter.

  6. Dave L. says:

    I really enjoyed the series on Rye. I found that in Virginia I can get Binny’s Beverage Depot from Illinois to ship to me and they have a lot of the Ryes noted here. They have both of the BMHs for instance. Old Potrero seems to be the hardest for me to get here. Still looking for the follow up article on the Templeton and the Hotaling’s!

  7. Jay Hepburn says:

    So I spent some of my Christmas bonus (thanks to the wonders of eBay) on a bottle of Black Maple Hill 23 year old, and it finally arrived today.

    Wow.

    I today agree about the finish, it just seems to dance about in your mouth forever after a sip. A really remarkable rye… just wonderful.

  8. [...] spend more than $100 on a bottle of Black Maple Hill (probably worth every penny, too, according to The Cocktail Chronicles, whose rye tasting is frighteningly comprehensive), but you can also drink a lot of really good [...]

  9. [...] cocktails that the attentive bartenders can muster up… a Manhattan, a gin and tonic, bourbon on the rocks. The venue oozes old school, where drinks are stiff, and the furniture and interior [...]

  10. J.J. O'Malley says:

    I have purchased and finished ” Vintage” 18 and 23 Ryes the latter was considerably better. I just found a underpriced Black Maple Hill 18 Rye at a small liquor store in Sierra Madre, CA for 74 bucks. I like it and I am drinking it this week. Still nothing compares to the BMH 23 which I bought and enjoyed and can no longer find or I am forced to pay 15 to 20 percent more than recommended( wont be held hostage). I recently( 10-12) months ago got hooked on Rye starting with RI-1 and at 47 I am drinking Hard spirits (conservatively) for the first time in my life!

  11. Andy Wolfe says:

    I saw 1 bottle of the 23 yr. old on the local shelf last night and bought it. I agree with everything here. It is a spectacularly flavorful drink. Better than any similarly priced scotch I have bought.

  12. Brian Larson says:

    I can vouch for thomas Handy Sazerac & Templeton rye, both are excellent! Wil be trying BMH varieties soon! Baby sazerac is a bargain, alot of rye for the money.

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