(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.