Rye whisky has exploded in popularity in recent years with resurgent production in the USA after decades of neglect. Canada, however, has always been known for rye. In the past few years a number of bottlers in the USA have taken Canadian rye whisky, bottled it domestically and sold it, with varying degrees of marketing emphasis, as Canadian rye.
A couple of months back I was reading Davin de Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and I picked up a bottle of Pendleton 1910 to enjoy while reading. de Kergommeaux writes about Canadian distillers assembling Canadian whiskies from smooth "base whiskies" often made from corn or wheat, and rye "flavoring whiskies". These combinations are referred to as "rye" regardless of the exact percentage of rye grain in the mash bill. In the US a whisky labeled "rye" must contain 51% or more rye. Pendleton 1910 is bottled in Bend Oregon but contains Canadian rye whisky and is labelled thus. I'm not certain of its mash bill, but I really enjoyed it and gave it four stars. In comments on that blog post, talented Oregon whisky and cocktail blogger Jordan Devereaux, creator of the blog Chemistry of the Cocktail, recommended Jefferson's Rye. He said that Jefferson's Rye, while a couple of years younger (still a noble ten years old by age statement) had a higher percentage of alcohol for less money - and was also labelled as a Canadian rye - although bottled in the USA. This is covered in detail in his 2011 Whiskey Review: Jefferson's 10-Year Straight Rye. I put in on my list.
Shortly afterwards I saw The Porch Hound's review, "The Whistlepig Dilemma and Why All Whisky Isn’t Created Equal". It is an impressive survey of four different rye whiskies, two Canadian ryes (both bottled in the USA, again): Whistlepig and Mastersons; and two American ryes: Thomas H. Handy and Old Potrero. I had tried the American ones, but not the Canadian ones. I actually had Whistlepig in my in-pile for months and hadn't realized it was a Canadian rye. I had been under the impression that it was an American craft spirit. Indeed, Whistlepig is an American craft distiller in full operation, but while its juice is aging it has contracted to buy Canadian aged juice and bottle it under its own label. The Canadian rye that Whistlepig had sourced had taken the world by storm with rave reviews. The shocking thing about The Porch Hound's review was that in a blind tasting, they found that Whistlepig wasn't nearly as good in their opinion as another American craft distiller selling a US bottling of Canadian rye - but this time one that no one (certainly not I) had seemingly ever heard of: Mastersons.
This finding was so iconoclastic and exciting that I immediately resolved to replicate this finding. I wasn't the only one. Tim Read of top whisky blog Scotch and Ice Cream reviewed Whistlepig, Masterson's and Jefferson's rye head to head to head just this last week in "Canadian Rye, Three Ways". He found them all lovely (B+s in his rating system) - a near dead heat. In the review he doesn't crown a clear winner but has states that he puts Masterson's slightly ahead.
My goals in performing an overview of Canadian rye whiskies bottled in the US were:
1) I wanted to corroborate The Porch Hound's, findings (i.e. is Masterson's an amazing standout)- or not
2) address the issue of whether they were all from one distillery as Jordan had suggested they might be.
3) Determine whether there was a clear delineation between these Canadian ryes and their closest American kin.
To that end I resolved to replicate The Porch Hound's survey tasting as a blind. Recent experience has taught me that mental expectations can affect flavors to the extreme that even basic details of the mash bill can be mistaken. Furthermore, while I wanted to include The Porch Hound's original selections of Whistlepig, Masterson's, Old Potrero Single Malt Rye, and Thomas H. Handy Rye, I also wanted to make sure I included Jefferson's Rye as per Jordan Devereaux's suggestion and given Tim Read's conclusion that it was so close to the others. I also knew that I had to include the other US bottled Canadian rye I knew of - the one that had started me on this road: Pendleton 1910 Rye. Finally, I wanted a control. In my experience neither Old Potrero nor Thomas H. Handy tasted remotely like a Canadian rye, but Russell's Reserve Rye 6 - the high end rye from the makers of Wild Turkey - had a creamy smoothness that I had come to associate with Canadian ryes. Furthermore I have had quite a bit of experience with it recently. I felt that having Russell's Reserve Rye 6 in the mix would help keep me honest and prevent me from erroneously ascribing elements of the flavor signature of rye whisky in general to Canadian rye in specific. I never doubted for a second, however, that I would be able to pick it out cleanly from the lineup of Canadian ryes. Given the large number of selections here, I chose to separate the Handy and have it separately from the blinds because it has such a dramatically different strength (at full cask strength) and flavor profile I couldn't see it playing meaningfully in a blind. Because I had a bit of glassware shortage due to some other projects I could only muster 5 glencairns. Because I felt Old Potrero had the least to bring the blind in the head to heads I put it in a NEAT glass and separated it from the blinds. Thus the only true blinds in this tasting are Whistlepig, Masterson's, Jefferson's Rye, Pendleton 1910, and Russell's Reserve Rye.
I decided to use a full double blind system because my assistant in this endeavor was to be my 9 year old daughter. Part of the issue was I didn't trust her to make precise and even pours from full heavy bottles. I also wasn't sure she would instinctively be able to randomize the selections knowing what they were. I solved the issue by decanting precise pours myself into a series of sample bottles that were labelled with a sequence of letters from A to E. I wrote a key which mapped the whisky's names to these letters. Then I gave this series of small bottles to my daughter. She blindly and randomly poured them into the matrix of glasses and wrote a second key which mapped the sequence of letters to the sequence of numbers on the mat where the glasses were placed 1-5 (with place 6 reserved for Old Potrero in the NEAT glass - to be tasted along side). Only when I matched the two keys at the end would the identities of the whiskies in the glasses be revealed to both of us.
Here are my tasting notes as written during the blind tasting - followed by the revealed identity:
1. Nose: heavy musky oak, acetone, peach, citrus, old roses. A bourbon-like nose - very nice.
Entry is sweet with honey toffee, treacle and spicy with oak and herbal expansion: ivy and cilantro. A big classic rye flavor profile. The finish is a spice afterglow - herbal and malty.
w/water & extensive air the flavor profile is little changed: big, flavor dense, rich & bourbon-like with stewed peaches & musk, big spicy herbal expansion with ivy, cilantro, and eucalyptus and a big woody oaken finish. This is a big sleek bruiser of a rye. I was definitely thinking it was Whistlepig or possibly Jefferson's based on what I had heard. ****
Reveal: Jefferson's Rye 10 Years Old 47% abv
Batch 3, Bottle 1912
2. Nose: lighter, more floral. Toffee, and apricot bark. Floral notes of of marigold and honeysuckle, daisies and burdock root.
Thinner mouth feel (less proof?) Herbal sweet entry with tons of marigold and herbal ivy orchid lilly flowers. Herbal sweet entry, spicy expansion with ivy herbs and more floral orchid lilly flavors.
w/water and extensive air the nose is more savory (parma ham). Big marigold herbal flavor has become even more dominant on entry which has become off-dry. Lean, elegant, herbal and marigold flavor. Gentle sophisticated oak on finish. I was thinking Masterson's *****
Reveal: Russell's Reserve Rye 6 years old 45% abv.
3. Nose: light dry mineral, sweet plum, dust, lanolin, floral lilly, some spicy oak perfume. Palate: creamy off-dry entry with oak, mineral, and waxy or lanolin coating. Spicy heat and long finish with bitter almond.
w/water and extensive time: chalk mineral, spirit note, sweet solvent note. Entry is sweet, creamy and gently herbal with a spicy expansion at mid palate. The finish is tingling, glowing and waxy with faint herbal bitterness.
I was thinking Russell's Reserve 6. ****
Reveal: Masterson's Rye 10 years old 45% abv.
Batch 3, Bottle 6160
4. Nose: cake batter - noticeably less complex than the others so far. Maple syrup. Distant sandalwood dry oak. With more time some dark baked and almost chemical notes. Entry is sweet and simple with some artificial vanillin and caramel flavors. Cake batter, and fake vanilla. Less oak. Turn to the finish introduces some gentle cherry. Very gentle finish with very little oak influence.
w/extensive air savory (parma ham) nose. Musky sweet toffee and cake batter. Soft expansion with cherry notes in the turn to the finish and malty cherry in the finish. I was thinking (?) this was clearly the loser of the group - although still very nice. ***
Reveal: Pendleton1910 12 years old 40% abv.
5. Nose of floral cognac: very august and nice with marigold and roses floral notes. some old apricot citrus. "Smells like fancy whisky". Light, more acidic, spritely & fresh. Some lovely incense-like oak perfume. The entry is sweet and complex with tons of oak filligree. A spicy expansion - semi-dry with marmalade cognac. Plenty of oak tannins on the finish. Adding 3 drops of water the entry becomes more intensely sweet - with candied orange citrus and a creamy aspect.
With extensive air the nose becomes dust, preserved citrus, and still lightly floral. The entry is sweet with jammy citrus, spicy on the expansion with complex herbal ivy and cilantro notes. More oak on the finish. This was the clear winner overall. I was thinking Whistlepig or Jefferson's. *****
Reveal: Whistlepig Rye 10 years old 50% abv.
6. Nose: intensely herbal with eucalyptus, ivy and a big dose of 50% fermented golden brewed wulong tea (orchid toasted flavors). Maybe some herbal sassafrass. Gently herbal on the sweet entry with bourbon-like candy-corn. Spicy heat on the expansion with mild hops-like bitterness joining ivy, cilantro, and herbal effusion. A gentle finish marked by herbal bitterness. ***
Identity: Old Potrero Single Malt Rye Essay 10-SRW-ARM1 No Age Statement
Chaser: Thomas H. Handy Rye 2011 63.45% abv issue.
Nose candied citrus, musky cherry, and candy apple with cinnamon
Palate: Huge entry - explosive rye flavors much bigger. Bourbon-like stewed peaches cherry compote, crushed ivy and cilantro herbal note, floral vanilla oak, sandalwood incense, hints of cinnamon heat and plenty of oak on the finish.
My full dedicated review of Handy: http://www.cooperedtot.com/2012/06/thomas-h-handy-rye-is-fireworks-display.html
Analysis and Conclusions:Goal #1) Is Masterson's the clear winner - was I (as Garrett and Jamie had written on The Porch Hound) "surprised to find out that the whisky that kicked everyone in the teeth was the relatively unheralded Masterson’s."?
No. Handy was the clear winner in my opinion. Whistlepig was the clear winner of the Canadian ryes in my opinion - but granted it was very close. Tastes are subjective and these small batch items are subject to batch variation. But today, with my samples, that's how it played out for me.
Goal #2) Are all the Canadian ryes here possibly from the same distillery?
I have put this question directly to various people in various ways, including asking Gavin de Kergommeaux directly. No one seems to know - or is willing to talk. Judging this by palate alone is notoriously tricky. de Kergommeaux repeatedly makes the point that each Canadian distillery produces a range of blends using in-house produced whiskies with often widely divergent flavor profiles. Differences do not prove different distilleries. Also, similarities don't prove production at a single distillery either. Similar production methodologies and mash bills can end up producing very similar tasting products even at totally different distilleries.
Furthermore, I was struck by the fact that, blind, I confused Russell's Reserve Rye 6 for a Canadian whisky and confused Masterson's for a Kentucky product. I can state, however, that Pendleton 1910 tasted dramatically different from all the other ryes in the tasting and that Whistlepig and Jefferson's tasted very similar to each other - although Whistlepig had a more refined presentation. I would not be surprised if Whistlepig and Jefferson's ended up being produced by the same distillery, but I would be surprised if Masterson's was, and even more surprised if Pendleton was.
A word about Pendleton 1910's labeling: Masterson's, Whistlepig, and Jefferson's all specifically state "Straight Rye Whisky" which in the USA means 51% plus rye, no additives, and at least 2 years in the barrel. Pendleton 1910 says something quite different: "100% Canadian Rye Whisky". I get the feeling that Pendleton 1910 doesn't comply with US legal requirements for Straight Rye Whisky - but I have no idea in what way. Given the dramatically different flavor profile I would guess that Pendleton's might be a blended Canadian product. I was rather struck, too, by the fact that I found Pendleton 1910 to be a high 4 star whisky when tasted sighted and by itself and a 3 star whisky when tasted in the presence of a bunch of other Canadian ryes. This points to the power of context and also of blind tasting. UPDATE: In conversation Davin DeKergommeaux (Malt Maniac, author, top Canadian whisky blogger and noted Canadian whisky authority) confirms that Pendleton 1910 is made from 100% rye - but crafted in a different way from the others - which accounts for its unique flavor profile.
Goal #3) Determine whether there was a clear delineation between these Canadian ryes and their closest American kin.
Amazingly, the answer here is no. Blind I was not able to clearly determine which ryes were Canadian and which were American. The flavor signature of the straight rye mash bill trumped geographical location.