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.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Wiser's 18 Review

Whisky Advocate's 2012 Canadian Whisky of the Year
Those of you that follow this blog or know me personally, know that I am always on the hunt for extra-aged rye whiskey. Taken together with my recent esteem for the Alberta-produced Jefferson's 10 year, it was with excitement that I learned of a US retailer who was selling the otherwise hard-to-get Wiser's 18 (also marketed as Wiser's Very Old).

I have been known to make disparaging remarks about Canadian whisky before, usually decrying their practice of adding up to 9.09% syrup/color/wine/maple syrup or whatever, as well as their even more rampant practice of blending perfectly good "flavoring whisky" (whence Jefferson's, Whistlepig and Masterson's) with very high proof "grain whiskey" that differs little from vodka.

I put all of this aside as I read the Advocate and other reviews. All touted huge amounts of oak and notable rye spices. As I forked over my $54, I was really looking forward to an available alternative to keep me from raiding my stash of older, straight rye whiskies.

This was some of the worst whisky money I have ever spent.

At first, I was going to write that I must just not understand Canadian whiskey, but I don't think that is fair to me. This is really overpriced, disappointing stuff, and I cannot understand how it is so well reviewed. When I first opened it, I got a whiff of oak, that was quickly gone and has not come back. Otherwise:

Nose: Vanilla, apples, a touch of butter and something bitter smelling that may be tired oak. Notable rubbing alcohol.
Palate: Vanilla, reused oak, a touch of cardboard, vodka and water.
Finish: Bitter and alcoholic. Despite being diluted to a pathetic 80 proof, it still has a very spirity burn that in no way suggests 18 years of aging. Otherwise mercifully brief.
Could this be a bad bottle? Do they counterfeit Wiser's? I'm not even sure what to do with it. I tried water and ice to no avail. I think I may just dump it to use what is really a very nice bottle. 70/100

I really like Canada and Canadians, and I also know that good whiskey can be made up north; this just really isn't it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Hi All,
Thanks for the patience during my hiatus; I'm just finally able to start up with this blog again. I will be easing back in with shorter reviews before launching into my usual (excessively?) long format. Today, we have two whiskies from Japan. Those of you less familiar with world whisky may not think that this sounds very appealing but Japan actually has a history of making great whisky dating to the 19th century. Japanese domestic whisky production is very similar to that in Scotland, relying on single malts and grain whiskies (the latter usually in blends) and using peat smoke and reused bourbon or sherry barrels for flavor. For more and excellent reading on Japanese whisky be sure to check out the blog Nonjatta.

Today's reviews will be two high-strength, reasonably priced, primarily bourbon-barrel finished blended whiskies. Though I have tended to avoid all but a very few blended Scotch whiskies, Japanese blends often pull it off really well (Hibiki is a notable example), and these two are no exception.

1. Kirin Fuji Sanroku (foot of mount Fuji) NAS blend, 50% ABV (about $15)
This one is a very well-priced "supermarket whiskey" in Japan, that I added to an order to get free shipping. I initially had very low expectations.

Nose: Vanilla, apples, grapes, grains and hints of coffee and caramel

Palate: Medium to heavy body, roasted grains, Four Roses bourbon, cooked milk and a touch of must

Finish: Fruit from the nose re-emerges, moderate burn, finishes cleanly.

Overall: This is really surprisingly good. There is no mistaking this for a single malt but the grain component here lends a nice, heavy mouthfeel and the bourbon presence lends really pleasant floral and vanilla notes (I presume that the bourbon barrels used were from Four Roses, also owned by Kirin, and you can really smell the similarity). Often, when it is hot and I want a whisky with ice that I do not need to think too hard about I will order a Johnny Walker Black; this does about the same thing for me, for much cheaper. 82/100

2. Nikka Whisky "From the Barrel" NAS blend 51.45% ABV (about $30)
I first had this whiskey in Reims, after a day of champagne tasting. Just writing that makes me pine for my pre-child life a bit... Anyway, The FTB is a marriage of malt and grain whiskies from Nikka's two distilleries, Yoichi (Hokkaido) and Miyagikyo (Honshu). The whiskies are vatted together and "recasked" for additonal aging, then bottled directly from the cask. Unlike the Kirin, this whisky is relatively well-known and gets great reviews, including frequent World Whisky Awards.

Nose: Incense/spices, apricots, citrus peels, vanilla, and faint solvent and perfume notes

Palate: Sherry, butter, roasted nuts, vanilla, malt and milk chocolate. Alcohol well in check and medium-bodied.

Finish: Seamlessly trails of from the palate for a few minutes. Despite the high strength, this warms rather than burns.

Overall: This stuff is just great. It holds its alcohol percentage very well and provides a much more nuanced and polished presentation than the Kirin. At the same time, it has a complexity and power that keep it from being a smooth, boring whiskey. Though not stated on the packaging or website, there seems to be a definite sherry influence here in addition to bourbon barrel. There are also some oak notes here that seem really rather exotic; I don't know that any of this was aged in the famed Mizunara oak, but I'd not be surprised. I'd love to know the cooperage regime here, as it is truly pretty interesting. 89/100

In much the same way that the Japanese seem to be able to turn out a high-quality, reasonably-priced version of just about everything, these 2 blends absolutely destroy any blended Scotch competitor even close to their price range. The Kirin can totally replace any inexpensive blended scotch for on-the-rocks drinking, and I would imagine the Four Roses nose would also appeal to bourbon drinkers. The Nikka is also just a stunning value: though a blended malt, I think it can hold its own with any unpeated scotch up to easily twice its price. The only real problem I see with either of them is that they are not imported into the US.

Next up will be a less glowing review...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brief Hiatus

Hi All,
With the earlier than planned arrival of the Breastmilk Obsessive, I will be taking a brief break. There has been too little sleep or time to really enjoy a drink lately, much less obsess. I fully intend to be back with a number of pent-up reviews, but for now, I have to take a break. I continue to appreciate your readership, comments, etc., and look forward to rejoining you soon.