May 22, 2014

Review: High West 21-Year Rye - Rocky Mountain Smooth

When a Rye Is Not a Rye...

As we've talked about before, there are some very specific regulations for what constitutes straight rye whiskey.  One of those regulations is that it must be aged in new charred oak barrels.  Since their 21-year is aged in used oak barrels, High West is very careful not to call it a rye.  Instead it's labelled "whiskey distilled from rye mash" with the subtitle "stored 21 years in reused cooperage".  Interesting... 


According to their website, High West was started in 2004.  This means that if this whiskey was aged the whole 21 years in reused cooperage, then it wasn't High West's decision to barrel it this way.  More likely this whiskey was never intended to be sold as a rye.  It was probably destined for a blend, which explains why the standards for straight rye weren't observed.  This doesn't take anything away from the whiskey.  Many great single barrels were rescued from distilleries that predominantly produced whiskey for blends.  Nonetheless it's interesting.  We know that High West has sourced whiskey from Four Roses, LDI, and Barton.  It's unlikely that they could have obtained a barrel of 53% rye from Four Roses, and it seems more likely that they could find a barrel this old from Barton than LDI, so that's our guess.  Barton produced a wide range of blended American and Canadian whiskeys, so that makes sense with this story as well.  

Tasting Notes

Nose:  We wouldn't blink if you told us this was a highland malt.  It's got a lot of that furniture polish scent that speaks to an old unpeated scotch.  Perhaps that's the cooperage since it's aged in used oak barrels rather than new charred oak.  It's lacking all the big rich vanilla, molasses, and spice that we think of in a classic American rye.  There's some sweetness, maybe a little peach and white chocolate, some mint, and a lot of perfumy, musky stuff going on.

Palate:  Well at least we can tell it's a rye in the taste, certainly not a malt.  The spice and the cracking wheat come into play.  There's some chiles, a nice mellow corn, medium body, and some nutmeg.

Finish:  It's smooth as hell, which it should be at 46% and 21-years old.  The finish is brief, well balanced but unremarkable.

Review:  Considering how hard this bottle is to find, we were hoping for something really over the top special.  This one is smooth, that's for sure.  There's nothing *wrong* with it.  But it just doesn't really float our boat.  Compared to other epic ryes like Rittenhouse 21, Willett 25, or the old bottles of Michter's 10-Year, this just doesn't have a lot of flavor.  It's not a beast, that's for sure.  Maybe it's predisposition, but it almost drinks like a blended whiskey.  Very smooth, nice balance, but not the kind of big flavor bomb that we've come to know and love from our favorite ryes.  It's hard to tell if it's the low proof or the used barrels or just the original source, but there's something missing here.

Since this is certainly 'a hunter', you might well want to pick one up if you find one in the wild, but we honestly we wouldn't hunt too hard for it.

A Crazy Frankenstein Remix...

Ok, so High West 21 had grace and finesse, but something of a lack of balls.  If you are a devoted SmokyBeast reader, you may remember a fairly recent review where we found a whiskey with too much kick, maybe just a little heavy in the balls department.  Ok so we came up with a crazy idea.

Right, so two of our not-so-favorite whiskies.  Stagg Jr, which we really just didn't enjoy at all - freakishly hot, burny, like magic markers on crack.  And High West 21 - which for the record we have WAY more respect for than Stagg Jr. - it's a delicate and sublime lady, just not quite the flavor bomb we look for in a rye.  Could it be...  put together...  synergy?

Frankenstein Vatting Tasting Notes

Nose:  You know what?  The FrankenVat has vanilla, molasses, dark oak aromas are back!  We didn't love the Stagg Jr. nose, but combined with the super-mellow High West, this has a really awesome big sweet nose that also has those elements of age.  Not bad so far...

Palate:  Well... um...  this is pretty much the good stuff.  Ok granted at this point we've had a couple of glasses of the straight 21 year, as well as little belt of the Stagg Jr straight to jog the memory (after 6 months it still wasn't *good* but it was a lot more drinkable than at first sip), so we're not exactly pristine in the palate / taste memory category, but still this is good stuff.  It's got the sweets - cocoa, vanilla, baking goods; and the warmth - old leather, wood, furniture polish.  It's sort of got it all.

Finish:  And it's got a mile long awesome warm finish.  No doubt due to the rocket fuel that is Stagg Jr, but still retaining a bit of the class of the HW 21.

A little bit of mad science pays off sometimes!  Cheers/SB

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