Sunday, June 23, 2013

Vintage 21 and Rittenhouse 21 Rye Whiskey Reviews

Old enough to drink themselves.
Along with Islay Scotch, aged rye is my abiding whisky love. So it is with much happiness that I was able to change out of my baby-vomit-covered shirt, sit down, and write this review. As you may remember from my first posts, I am a big fan of the many extra-aged whiskies bottled from the Old Medley or Cream of Kentucky (Heaven Hill) distilleries, and these are two of those. The Rittenhouse is a product of Heaven Hill, and was therefore likely distilled in the old Bernheim distillery; likely a similar stock to the excellent Sazerac 18 sold by Buffalo Trace. The Vintage 21 is a KBD product that does not reveal it's source, but I am 99% positive it is from the same stocks of Medley rye that we find in the Hirsch 21/22 and that makes up part of the mixture that is the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. If anyone has any further info on these, please feel free to let me know as I would love more details.

I think the things that I find so exciting about these older ryes are the unusual intensity of the nose these guys tend to have, and their combination of spice and dryness. These things are very hard to find in bourbon (though wheaters do age really nicely). The nose, I find, is what develops most in the extra-aged expressions. The other notable characteristic that seems drastically to increase with aging is the presence of tannins (the same chemicals responsible for the mouth-drying quality of red wine), which many find off-putting. My favorite wines are the relatively tannic Baroli and Barbareschi of Piedmont, though, so this does not bother me a bit; I actually kind of like it. 

Vintage 21 Rye Whiskey (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers) 47%ABV ($120 if you can find it)

Nose: Attic, church pews, incense, dark rye toast, toffee, raisins

Palate: Chewy, with well integrated alcohol. Toast, vanilla, intense spices, caramel and lots of wood. Brooding.

Finish: Very long, warming and drying. About 1 minute in , apples and grape skins come through, finally 
ending cool.

Overall: This is much better than I remember a prior tasting in a bar, which I though was too dry and woody. This is still a very woody drink, but I think it has the fruit and spice to balance the wood assault that makes for an overall very intense, interesting experience. Those who find their wood/tannin tolerance lower than mine would likely prefer the Saz 18 which is at this point easier to find and cheaper, but I like this a bit better. 93/100

Rittenhouse 21 Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey (Heaven Hill) 50%ABV ($150)

Nose: More ethereal with notes of rye bread, red fruits and caramel, in addition to incense, antique shop wood and old books. More alcoholic as well. 

Palate: Big mouthfeel with buttered rye toast, cinnamon and cloves, very faint pickle, also lots of wood. Bright overall.

Finish: Shorter than the V21, not as drying. Apples and their skins, vanilla, faint incense. Ends with slight grapeseed bitterness.

Overall: The nose on this is just fantastic and is by far the high point of this whiskey. I could smell this stuff for days. The palate and finish are much better than when I first opened the bottle (at that point the palate was quite thin and boring), but they are still a bit of a let-down after the promises of the nose. This is still excellent whiskey, but not quite as good as the V21, and I don't think I'd spend the rather high price on it (better to get Saz, Michter's 10 or any other old rye you can find). That said, I am still looking forward to opening the 23 at some point and will of course report back. 91/100

These are both excellent rye whiskeys, but they sort of illustrate what I think is a great sadness of the recent boom in bourbon and rye: look at how expensive these are. A few years ago, people were complaining that the V21 wasn't worth $40 because you could get VWFRR for that price! Now, there are just so few options for a good aged rye without impoverishing yourself. Luckily, the majors have all increased their rye production, so maybe when attention moves on to the next phase of "clear drinks are now cool again," we can have a rye glut, but until then, make sure to share these bottles with friends.


  1. Great review, and great to see you back posting again!

  2. I just saw the 23 year old (I thought it said 23, might have been 21) Vintage Rye at my local store for $130. Worth it? I'm hesitant as I've dropped that much for a single bottle before.

    1. Sorry, but I just saw this. May be too late. If you have never tried rye this old before, you may want to before dropping $130. I would do it for the 21, and likely also the 23. I think the 23 is pretty near to overoaked, even for me. Some think the 21 is as well, which is why you might want to give it a try. Let me know how it turns out if you end up with it.

  3. Quite a number of years ago, a LeNell Smothers was selling a 24 year old rye under her name (LeNell's Red Hook Rye) from her Brooklyn store. I also read that KBD supplied the whiskey which suggests that this was also Bernheim product. Now based on the scant reviews online, this was excellent stuff for it's age. Would have loved to taste this one but it's probably all gone by now.

    1. I would trade a lot for a bottle of LeNell's. I've been told it was a Medley rye, but either way I've heard it was fantastic. Apparently you can still try it in a few whiskey bars.