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??



  1. As far as liquor stores, we are pretty picked over but Evergreen (on Shelbyville Road) always has a great selection. Some of the Liquor Barns will surpise you with what they randomly have and you could also stop by Westport Whiskey and Wine. For bars, I would make sure you hit up Haymarket Whisey Bar and Silver Dollar. If you have time for more than two, maybe check out Bourbon's Bistro, Bar at Proof and Down One Bourbon Bar. Happy to meet you at any of those if you get out and about. Jason

  2. If you go down 75/71 stop by the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar in Covington KY just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

  3. have you tried the high west 16 or 21 year old ryes?

    1. Haven't tried the 16, but we have bottles of the 21-year and the Bourye. The 21 is super smooth but it's proofed down to 45% and in my opinion really suffers for it. The Bourye has a little more balls but it's not really comparable. The WIllett is nothing like either of these, way darker, more wood and deeper flavor. It's got a bitterness / herbal quality that makes it too much on the oak for many...

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  5. Has trying the cask strength ryes from the same batch changed your minds about this being the best rye?

    1. Yes! Tasting LeNell's (http://smokybeast.blogspot.com/2014/06/review-lenells-red-hook-rye-bitter.html) did change our minds about this. It was utterly superb. Also the Bonili 24/94 (http://smokybeast.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-big-willett-tasting-part-7-24-year.html) and Michter's 6 (http://smokybeast.blogspot.com/2015/05/rye-battle-royale-willett-2494-vs.html) rye were totally unbelievable. Still love this one, but yes we've been lucky enough to taste some that were even better.