I felt that 2013 was a pretty sad year for rye. The further explosion of small brands using the term “craft” for “their” 95% rye whiskies was less frustrating since it has become commonplace, but the new trend of “American rye whiskies” sourced from Canada took the wind right out of my sails. We tend to push Canadian whiskey into the corner over there with Irish whiskey and the less desirable blended Scotches. When an Alberta rye is bottled by a Canadian company it sells for $30, but when an American company buys and bottles a Canadian whiskey, it goes on the top shelf with a monster price tag.
We wouldn’t pay $200 for an eighty-something proof Canadian Club, ever, no matter what the age was, so why are we so eager to do it when it is bottled as Jefferson’s? The 21 year Collingwood only sells for $65 here, which is something like $60 to $80 cheaper than the 21 year Jefferson’s rye, and they are both 100% rye whiskies from Canada. The 25 year, 86 proof Jefferson’s rye sells for upwards of $200, but a 30 year, 80 proof bottling of Alberta Premium, which is what we assume to be the same exact whiskey sold for $49.99. The fact that all of these Jefferson’s ryes, as well as the WhistlePig are sold in the domestic section is all the more frustrating.
Jefferson’s says, “North American Rye,” which narrowly avoids using the term “Canadian”. WhistlePig says it is “made in Vermont,” which is to say that they bottle their Canadian rye in Vermont. Both of these ryes belong on the same shelf as Crown and Collingwood, not Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse. That is not to say that Canadian whiskey is bad, or undesirable, but there is a huge difference in perception of value because American rye is monitored and strictly defined, and Canadian rye, not so much. In my opinion, that is why a 21 year Canadian rye is $140 when it sits on the domestic shelf, and only $65 when it is on the Canadian shelf.
If it wasn’t for Willett getting one year closer to bottling their own rye, the return of Wild Turkey 101 Rye, and the anticipation of the DSP-KY-1 Rittenhouse, I probably would have sworn off rye all together. Instead, the first bottle I finished this year was my Leopold Bros. Maryland Rye so I decided to buy one of the two new/old ryes. Wild Turkey jumped up to $45 from the old $24 price range, so I went with the $22 DSP-KY-1 Rittenhouse.
In case you aren’t sure why a DSP-KY-1 Rittenhouse is notable, the brand has been distilled at three different plants in the last eighteen years. Before the infamous Heaven Hill fire of 1996, Rittenhouse was distilled at the Bardstown DSP-KY-31 plant. The DSP-KY-31 plant was destroyed in the fire, along with tens of thousands of gallons of whiskey, which forced Heaven Hill to outsource their rye production to Brown-Forman while they regrouped. That is why the recent era of Rittenhouse has had DSP-KY-354.
A few years after the fire while Brown-Forman was handling Rittenhouse, Heaven Hill purchased the Bernheim Distillery from United Distillers (in 1999). This plant was built only seven years earlier in 1992, so it was a pretty smart move, but they still didn’t have enough output to make their own rye for a few decades. This is why the ten year old Henry McKenna was able to use a DSP-KY-1 label before the four’ish year old Rittenhouse.
Around 2008, Heaven Hill was able to add some space to start making their own rye again. The Rittenhouse we see now is the result from that 2008 DSP-KY-1 production.
There will always be the people loading up their basements with cases of discontinued bottles of whiskey, but I would wait to try the DSP-KY-1 Rittenhouse before scouring the earth for every remaining DSP-KY-354 Rittenhouse. In the end, all that matters is how the whiskey tastes once it is in the glass. History can be charming, but alone, it cannot make a whiskey taste better.
Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye Review (DSP-KY-1)
Nose: Big vanilla, molasses, clove, dark chocolate, menthol, and a light honey and floral note.
Sip: Much sweeter than the nose leads on. Molasses, vanilla wafers, and caramelized pecans, with a short black tea note in the middle. The back is loaded with baker’s chocolate, tobacco, clove, and a deep spice box. The oak is mild and delicate, far short of bitter, which allows the spiciness to do the heavy lifting.
Finish: Slightly bitter, but longer than the medium texture leads on. Cocoa, vanilla, clove and a light bouquet of spices linger with a modest vapor of mint.
It has been over a year since my last bottle of the Brown-Forman Rittenhouse so I cannot compare them with any certainty, but this Rittenhouse is no slouch. It has a great, albeit simple nose, a super deep back end profile, and the price is about 50% of the fair market value. This ranks pretty high up there on my under $40 ryes, with the old $22 Wild Turkey 101 as the high water mark.
Even if you fell in love with the Brown-Forman version, I can still see this satisfying your needs for a low cost, high value rye.
Drink this, not that: Having just had the new Wild Turkey 101 Rye at a bar, I think the Wild Turkey edges out this Rittenhouse in quality, but it is probably not $20 better.
Old Overholt is a fantastic rye for $15, so there is a viable option that is even cheaper than Rittenhouse. The sweetness is somewhat flat, it lacks the tea, and the tobacco is replaced with a dry leather, but it will do in a pinch.
If you want to go up in price and get a reasonable return in quality, E.H. Taylor Rye might be the only option that is worth a jump over $50.
Try and get to far beyond those and you will be swimming in a deep pool of LDI and Alberta ryes that look attractive on the shelf but offer little beyond Bulleit and Beam.