June 26, 2014

Review: LeNell's Red Hook Rye, Bitter Truth Rye, Michter's 20 Year, Van Winkle Lawrenceburg

That's how this trip started.  We were taking a happy hour break from a whiskey show...  Because sometimes you need to take a break from drinking and just have a few drinks.  That's when our new acquaintance started laying down the law.

"As your attorney I advise you to drink some insanely rare Willett rye."

"You're not my attorney."

"Ok pay me one dollar."


"Ok, now I'm your attorney.  Come on, my office isn't far from here."

Beast Masters III:  Beast Master, Esquire, Attorney-at-Law

The view didn't suck.

No, not that view.

Nope, not that one either...

(Yes, that's an A.H. Hirsch "red wax", and a private barrel VWFRR 18 Year hiding near that back)
Getting warmer, but still no...

That's the one!

The Rarest of the Rare

You may remember that we're sort of obsessed with Willett.  We got a private tour of their distillery from Drew, the master distiller.  We found their Family Estate 25-Year Single Barrel Rye to be some of the best liquor we'd ever tasted.  We sat down with Doug Phillips whose legendary Willett private barrels are so collectible, they have been responsible for several coups d'├ętat in third world countries.  But there was one rare beast that had yet alluded our hunt...

LeNell's Red Hook Rye

LeNell's Red Hook Rye is a private Willett barrel chosen by liquor store owner Tonya LeNell Smothers who owned & operated LeNell's Ltd. in Red Hook Brooklyn from 2003 to 2009.  She met with Drew in Kentucky and chose one of the first and now most famous barrels of rye.  LeNell's Ltd lost their lease in 2009 and had to close shop.  Her and her husband are now working on a new location in her home town of Alabama.

Red Hook Rye is now the rarest of the rare, with a second market value in the thousands.  It's been sort of a dream of ours to try it.  Who knew that we just had to pick the right lawyer?

LeNell's Red Hook Rye front & back, Barrel #1 Bottle 88/228

On The Essence of Rye
"The truth of being is essence...  Being is in and for itself, it does not stop at the immediate and its determinations, but penetrates it on the supposition that behind this being there is something else, something other than being itself, that this background constitutes the truth of being." - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel     from Science of Logic, 1816
Hegel's concept of the "essence" of a thing is a deep, preexisting, overarching group of ideal attributes.  It's something that is never completed defined, but rather is revealed through experience and commonality, perhaps more clearly expressed through art than science.

Just as Hegel spent most of his life trying to understand and explain the concept of essence, it's difficult to put your finger on the uniqueness of rye.  Take something like single malt scotch.  There are so many kinds of wonderful scotch.  From young fierce beasts to old delicate gems, from big sweet sherry bombs to biting peaters, from salty island drams to woody Speyside malts, scotch has many ideal forms. Even with something like bourbon, you've got ethereal beauties like A.H. Hirsch and ball-kicker powerhouses like George T. Stagg, both gorgeous in their own right.

But rye (and we're talking about Kentucky rye of course) all strives for the same perfect essence.   The predetermined ideal concept of rye is a big, rich, and wonderful sensation with waves of vanilla, brown sugar, molasses, deep oak, char, a sharp kick of spice, cocoa, and little hints of candied citrus all wrapped up in a big powerful and clean spirit.

Rather than trying to give tasting notes on LeNell's we'll just say that it comes the closest to that rye essence of any bottle we've tasted so far.  Even the Willett 25-Year in hindsight isn't quite there.  It's got a little bitterness, just something that's not quite on target, now that we understand better what exactly the target is.

Getting Lonely

"We don't want that Willett to get lonely," our counsel says as he extracts a sister bottle from the cabinet. Unsatisfied with only one utterly impossible whiskey, he pairs the Red Hood Rye with another super-rare Willett called "Bitter Truth."  Bitter Truth is a German outfit founded by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck.  Their main bag is producing their own bitters and contributing to the cocktail scene, but they also participated in the early days of the Willett private barrel program.  Bitter Truth is perhaps not *quite* as collectible as LeNell's, but it's definitely way way up on the dusty hunter dinosaur list.  Never to be found again.  If you see it, buy it, hide it under your bed, and don't tell anyone about it.

Bitter Truth is utterly amazing as well.  It's sweeter than Red Hook Rye with perhaps a touch less warmth and spice.  We give LeNell's the winning grade here, but they're both extraordinary.

"Well it's almost time to start drinking again."

"Damn, I guess we have to go back to that whiskey show don't we?" We'd already forgotten all about the whiskey show and were concocting plans to install a Costanza-esque bed under our new lawyer's desk so that we could grow old here with his whiskey collection.

"Well, I guess we have time for a couple of bourbons before we go," he says.

"Um...  Ok."

Michter's 20 Year Bourbon 2014 Release

The 2013 Michter's 20 Year blew us away, and this 2014 release may be even better.  Deviously rich and buttery with a thick mouth feel and all that great sweet and powerful bourbon goodness, we probably would have to throw caution to the wind and shell out the $500 price tag on one of these if we saw it in the wild.

Dug's & Willy's Willett 17-Year Bourbon

Who are we to turn down a second chance at Dug'z & Willy'z Willett bourbon??  The second taste was much like the first, unforgettable.  That kind funky skunky finish is back and we can't get enough.

Van Winkle 'Lot B' Lawrenceburg

From the pre-Buffalo Trace days, when Julian was bottling Van Winkle from old Stitzel-Weller stock and perhaps other stashes of older "glut" bourbon, the Lawrenceburg Van Winkle absolutely puts the current stuff to shame.  The modern releases of Lot B are still very fine bourbon, but this has a richness and flavor that's in a completely different league.

Well that puts a close on perhaps the most epic, and by far the most spontaneous, Beast Master tasting to date.  Now, what can we do to end up back in our lawyer's office??  Hm....


  1. you truly are a lucky devil---hope to get to taste myself some day

    1. I thought of you Al-Pop. Don't worry we'll track some down one day together!

  2. Replies
    1. Hehe you got it. Something criminal would work. Or I suppose we could just hire him for a consultation...

  3. About time you guys sought proper council! :p

    So if current Lot B is VW select Weller 12, the LBerg is VW select....what? Like 12 yr Old Fiz juice? When was the transition to BT?

    1. Haha if the glove don't fit...

      The BT partnership started around 2002 I think, and the new stuff reads "Frankfort, Kentucky". I'm not sure exactly the dates on the bottling move versus the sourcing. If you want to know exactly what juice is in all the Van Winkle bottles, that's like the Kennedy assassination / Area 51 of bourbon! :)

  4. I know lenells husband...we were drinking some red hook tonight didn't know how crazy rare it was lol...good though

    1. Wow cool. Tell them we said what's up! Probably the best rye we've ever tasted. No surprise they fetch about $3k/bottle on the secondary market.

  5. In January 2015 she sold three bottles in NY for $20K. I still have a bottle from the 2nd bottling. My girlfriend bought it at her store for $75 and I thought she was crazy.

    1. Haha if you had a whiskey time machine you could make serious coin! $20k is over the top, I hope it was for charity. But yes these bottles definitely go in the thousands. Great stuff, if you can afford it! Thanks for reading. /SB

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