When you receive enough press samples, sometimes you’re lucky enough to be able to ID an “industry trend” as it emerges in real time. Case in point: “Double barreled” American whiskeys are not necessarily a new concept, at least within the bourbon sphere, but they’re pretty rare elsewhere. Taking an already aged spirit and sticking it into a second, freshly charred barrel has the potential to impart some unique characteristics, owing to a “re-energizing” of the aging process itself. This increased barrel character, which you’d expect to come forth as a more intense wood, “char” and spice presence, seems like a natural fit for small-batch bourbon. But rye whiskey? That’s a bit more unique.
So, when I realized that I had not one but two “double barrel” rye samples on hand—plus an additional double barrel bourbon that’s also pretty new on the market—it seemed like an obvious invitation to sample the three side by side.
The whiskeys in question are the following:
— Sagamore Spirit Double Oak Rye Whiskey, a four-year rye whiskey with a $60 MSRP.
— Knob Creek Twice Barreled Rye, a non-age statement (“up to nine years”) rye whiskey with a $45 MSRP.
— Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whisky, a four-year bourbon aged in heavily charred barrels for an additional 6-9 months, with a $55 MSRP.
It’s interesting to see the range of ages and prices available here—no surprise that Sagamore is the highest, given that this is a much smaller distillery than the likes of Beam. I sat down to taste all three side by side, in order to see what kind of effect the “double barrel” experience would have on each, and the results were illuminating.
Sagamore Spirit Double Oak Rye Whiskey
As stated above, this is essentially Sagamore Spirit’s flagship, MGP-sourced, four-year rye whiskey (92 proof), which spends four additional months in newly toasted barrels. That’s “toasted” in this case and not charred, which is implied to accentuate spice and aromatics rather than really deep caramelization or roast. And indeed, this is one of the most assertive and complex bottlings I’ve had of the widely used 95-5 MGP rye base.
On the nose, I’m getting lots of things: Mint, green apples, fennel, fresh cuts grass and tons of baking spices. On the palate, it blasts you with spiciness—something I happen to like, although not everyone does—and is on the sweet side for a relatively younger rye, although it’s not nearly so rich as the Old Forester 1910 I would try in this same lineup. There’s a certain decadence here still, though, that I didn’t detect back when I drank the regular Sagamore Spirit Rye. Overall impression: Caramel apple, or apple pie filling, loaded with spices. Very pleasant for neat drinking, you might be able to use this in certain whiskey cocktails, although it’s not as dry as many ryes, so take that into account. Regardless, this is the MGP rye formula taken to a pretty unique extreme, and I can dig it.
Knob Creek Twice Barreled Rye
This whiskey is your regular Knob Creek Rye, which is a low-rye (around 55%) whiskey in the classical Beam style, that has been aged in a second, newly charred barrel like all of these others. Like other Knob Creek offerings, it’s bottled at 100 proof, and is a blend of distillate between roughly five and nine years of age.
Tasting this whiskey, this feels like the entry of the three that was least affected by its second trip into the barrel, or at least affected in the most subtle way. On the nose, there’s no mistaking this for a Beam rye, as the low rye percentage and relatively high corn content is usually quite distinctive. Cherry and chocolate notes on the nose are met with prominent graininess and a bit of mustiness. On the palate, you get plenty of rye bread, light caramel and pepperiness, and a certain “malty”/yeasty quality that makes me want to label the style as “old school.” It’s thinner of body and lighter in flavor than the boisterous Old Forester 1910 (we’ll get to that in a minute), but quite drinkable all on its own, with a restrained alcohol heat. The second barrel aging here doesn’t seem to have overly amplified the oak character or spiciness, but simply accentuated all the notes that were already present. As it is, this is a classical, low-rye whiskey that still qualifies under the “rye” designation, but has plenty of Beam-style bourbon character as well. It feels a touch on the familiar side, but fans of the Beam-style ryes will no doubt find it to their liking.
Old Forester 1910 Old Fine Whisky
Okay, now this is where the second barrel really comes out to play. This bottle is regular four-year Old Forester, aged at 100 proof and finishing out at 93 proof after the second barrel. What makes it particularly unique is the char level of that second barrel, which is described as being burnt basically to the point of incineration, wherein it could barely be used to contain the whiskey. There it stayed for 6-9 months of additional aging, before becoming the final entry in the distillery’s popular Whiskey Row series.
Did it make a difference? You bet it certainly did. I can hardly believe this is the classic Old Forester, and only four years old, because this stuff is decadent as hell. Not only is the oak accentuated, this stuff is genuinely ROASTY on the nose, before opening up into something that is quite complex. In addition to all the char, you’re bombarded with deep caramel, banana candy, baking spice and caramel corn. On the palate this feel viscous and oily, with bold notes of red fruit and spice, like cherries jubilee. I was reminded of nothing so much in fact, as Old Forester’s own Birthday Bourbon, and considering this one is half the price, that’s a pretty serious plaudit. Rich and quite sweet, with lingering impressions of toasted marshmallow and fruit cocktail, this whiskey is a neat drinker almost by default—it’s far too sweet and overpowering for most cocktails. I don’t always love sweeter bourbons, but I frankly find this one to be delicious—a dynamite dessert bourbon that has been transformed by its secondary aging.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.