Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: Willett 25-Year Rye Barrel 1776 - The Best Rye We've Ever Tasted

A Short List

It's a short list: Black Maple Hill 23-Year, Rittenhouse 21-Year, Van Winkle Family Reserve, Sazerac 18-Year.  The best ryes we've ever tasted.

The Pilgrimage

Next week, your faithful wife and hubby will be departing for the first SmokyBeast pilgrimage.  A spring break trip to Kentucky!  The little rock star is convinced that she is going to ride a horse in the Kentucky Derby.  (No, we're not going to the derby, but who can argue with the most adorable 2-year old in the world??).  We'll be stopping at some of our favorite distilleries, hopefully meeting some whiskey legends, and faithfully documenting our first hike down the bourbon trail.

A Pretty Stellar Preview

Knowing of our impending trip, our new best friend Dr. Alan delivered a little preview of some of the treats that lay ahead: a bottle of Willett 25-Year Rye. Spoiler alert: it was better than the best.

We covered Willett's 4-Year rye last year and it won our "Rye Beastie of the Year".  Our guess on the four-year bottling was that it was an excellent barrel choice of LDI rye served up at cask strength.  For the money it blew away many more expensive bottles and was a very pleasant surprise.  So we were incredibly pumped to try the 25-year...

Tasting Notes

Appearance:  Look how dark it is!  Somewhere between coffee and prune juice.  A beautiful site...

Nose:  Big, bad, sweet, spicy.  Just everything you dream about in a whiskey.  Huge brown butter, vanilla, dark chocolate, and cherries layered in with birch bark, old oak and leather, rich char and fresh mint.  Something else behind it, like a mysterious musty Chinese potion, bending rubbery anise, herbal medicinal floral madness.

Palate:  Man this whiskey has got legs!  (you can swirl it and see intricate spider webs down the sides of the glass.)  It's like drinking thick melted brown butter.  Very heavy on the back of the tongue, deep in the wood tannins, almost furry consistency.  Utterly smooth, there's much more wood than alcohol here.  Sweets are still there, but mighty spice brings us deep into the smoked animal hide barbecue dimension.

Finish:  That mysterious herbal medicinal madness is on full display in the finish.  We could see how this stuff isn't for everyone.  If you've ever had a bitter digestif like Fernet Branca or some of the more esoteric Italian Amaros, you probably know whether or not you have a taste for this stuff.  The finish is deeply herbal, coming back up the walls of your throat with wet moss, campfire stones, roots, black licorice, orange rind, essence of cherry, sage, lemongrass, paprika, cumin... really just too many different tastes to list.  The finish is long, one of the longest for any American whiskey we've tried, and the oak is massive.  Over-oaked?  You could make the argument but we'd disagree. We immediately fell in love with it. As a matter of fact, out of a huge tasting involving many impossible whiskies, we woke up the next day dreaming about this one and only bottle.  A true stunner.

The Mystery Continues

So what is this magical juice?  The best theory we've heard is that Willett contracted stocks of rye from the Old Bernheim Distillery which was shuttered in 1991.  Rumors point our other favorite Black Maple Hill 23-Year to the same Old Bernheim source, which would explain why they're both so far ahead of all the other ryes we've ever tried.  Perhaps we can solve some of the mysteries of Willett's sources by Sherlock'ing our way through the distillery??

Is this bottle the best of the best or are there other beasts that can defeat even this mighty beauty?  There are some legendary independent bottlings of Willett (The Iron Fist, The Velvet Glove, Rathskeller, LeNell's, Doug's Green Ink) that are completely impossible to find.  Supposedly some of those are younger bottlings of this same Old Bernheim rye, and perhaps its peak was a little younger than 25 years.  Either way this one blew us away and we'll savor this bottle slowly for special occasions until it's gone.

The Best of Kentucky?

Any Kentuckians in the house?  What are the best bourbon bars / liquor stores that we shouldn't miss??


Friday, April 11, 2014

Whisky Live 2014 Part II - The HFSM (Holy F*cking Sh*t Moment)

Yesterday we published our recap of WhiskyLive 2014 in New York.  It was a great show, full of some of our favorite drams, some new and exciting hits, and maybe one or two bombs.  But something else happened on Wednesday night.  We call it our HFSM (Holy F*cking Sh*t Moment)

Don't Judge a Booth by its Cover...

So we walked the floor of WhiskyLive for a couple of hours, bumping into buddies, meeting some of the legends, tasting whiskey.  One of the booths had a jazz band.  Ardbeg had wheeled in a huge green and gold "Trike" to celebrate their new launch (no they didn't actually have the whisky, just a huge ornate motorcycle).  There was also a very nonchalant guy sitting by himself in a booth with no signage whatsoever.  He was wearing a tie and hat and looking sort of lonely.  In front of him were five or six bottles that appeared to have been brought from home.  We didn't really think anything of it and walked by several times before taking notice.  Then when we started talking, we realized that we'd hit an unbelievable gold mine.

You see, the gentleman in question was Joe Hyman of Bonhams auction house.  He was there with some of the items that are going to be sold in their upcoming whiskey auction.  This is Joe.  Nice guy.  He happens to be holding in his hand a 1956 Jim Beam "Cleopatra Decanter".  We'd never seen one before.  Here are some more pictures:

So yeah that's a bottle of Jim Beam distilled in 1956 and bottled in 1962.  You know what?  It tasted nothing like Jim Beam does today.  Not that there's anything wrong with Jim Beam.  Actually for a low-shelf shooter, it's our all-time favorite.  But this was a very tasty smooth and nutty whiskey that had a very distinctive character.  So we looked through some of the other bottles on the table.

One of them was Seagram's V.O.  We used to drink Seagrams "Very Old" with beer chasers in college.  This bottle didn't look too different from the current packaging, so we didn't think much of it.  Then we noticed a tax stamp...

Yup, this particular SVO was distilled in 1942 and bottled in 1948!  That makes it one of the oldest whiskies we ever tasted.  This one was also very different than the current Seagram's.  It was spicy and round around the edges and had a wood component that's totally lacking from today's stuff.

So now we were really intrigued, and we started chatting with Joe.  As we did so, he began reaching into pockets and cardboard boxes and pulling out other types of things.  Stuff like this:

So now we're into a level of obscurity befit for a true whiskey connoisseur.  This "Little Touch Canadian Rye" was also distilled in the 40's (1943 as shown on the tax stamp).  We're not the biggest fans of Canadian Rye, but we'd never have guessed this stuff was from up north.  It had a big rich vanilla thing going on and was really excellent.

But hold on to your hats, because the big grand finale then came out of Joe's pocket in a mini-flask.

Details were on the back:

That's not a typo, this is hooch from the EIGHTEEN-sixties!!  We did some digging and apparently the "Hannisville Cache" was a famous find of nineteenth century rye purchased in Philadelphia in the 1870's by John Welsh, the US Ambassador to England.  A little research turned this up:

The Hannisville Rye has been in my family since 1913 if not longer. Family lore has it that the Hannisville Rye was distilled in 1863, was held in oak barrels for 50 years or until 1913 when it was put into the carboys. The rye was purchase by my great-great grandfather, John Welsh of Philadelphia who had served as Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, 1877-1879. He purchased these rare spirits along with some other friends in Philadelphia; The carboys were initially stored at the Merchants Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. of Providence, RI. The storage tags were stapled to the crates. The carboys were then moved to my great-father's summer home, Shadow Farm in Wakefield, RI where they remained until 1985, when at my grandmother's death they were moved to my parent's home in Saunderstown, RI. In 2003 the carboys came into my possession at my mother's passing. For the first time in almost 100 years the Hannisville Rye has passed from my family.

Well this rye was really unlike anything we'd ever tasted before.  It had a huge sweet molasses nose similar to some of the best well-aged bourbons.  The palate came back to the spice and grain kick of a rye whiskey.  The wood was very present but not over-oaky, which is pretty shocking considering the claim of 50 years in the barrels - which makes us doubt the accuracy of that claim (note that the above account did not come from Joe / Bonhams, but from the internet, so there's no check of authenticity to the anecdote).  The finish was clean and clear and very balanced.  Absolutely no burn, but a long cadence of spice and sweet vanilla and warmth.  Simply outstanding and unlike anything we've tried in a long time.

It was almost a shame that we ended up at Joe's table so far into the night. While these whiskies were obviously unique, we had tasted so many different bottles by this point that we were not at our best.  Still the experience of a lifetime.  Thanks Joe!  And thanks again to WhiskyLive!!  We'll never again walk past a booth of old dusties without stopping to chat!