Time, as they say, is a flat circle—a statement perhaps more true of the whiskey industry than most others. Distilleries and whiskey brands rise to prominence, are shuttered, fade into the collective unconsciousness and then have their names resurrected once again in an endless cycle of decay and rebirth. And so it is with O.Z. Tyler, one of Kentucky’s more recent resurrections.
Originally built in 1885, the original O.Z. Tyler distillery was the first in Owensboro and only the 10th licensed distillery in the state of Kentucky. The subsequent 135 years have been complicated indeed, as the distillery changed hands numerous times, burned down in 1918, was resurrected and has most recently been laying down barrels with its current ownership since 2016. One thing that has specifically differentiated O.Z. Tyler over the years, though, has been the notable brands they’ve produced bourbon for, which historically included the likes of Ezra Brooks, Mellow Corn and Old Medley. Today, they’re still a distillery that is largely working behind the scenes, so to speak, providing young bourbon for a handful of brands on the market while also working on their own self-branded releases. Wheel Horse Rye, however, is a departure: O.Z. Tyler’s first rye produced and aged in-house since the revival.
This is, therefore, the emergence of a new Kentucky straight rye whiskey, although one that thoroughly breaks with tradition. Historically, Kentucky-made ryes have tended to be produced in a very specific and recognizable style, with a mere 51% or so rye grain in the grist, the rest being made up of corn and traces of barley. This means, obviously, a rye that shares more bourbon characteristics, which has increasingly made Kentucky ryes stand out as almost a separate substyle to the increasingly popular (thanks to Bulleit Rye especially) style of making rye with very little or no corn at all. Wheel Horse hews to the latter despite its Kentucky origins, a style that tends to produce spicier, more distinctly “rye” whiskeys.
Here’s the facts: This is a straight rye whiskey aged between 2-3 years in Owensboro, at O.Z. Tyler’s distillery, with a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley—the popular MGP ratio, although this liquid is obviously not from Indiana. The whiskey is aged in newly charred oak (standard barrel size) and is non-chill filtered. Batch #1 of Wheel Horse Rye hit shelves in December and is bottled at a generous 101 proof, which bodes well for its use in classic whiskey cocktails. MSRP is an intriguingly low $27.99, which likewise suggests it is intended to compete against the value rye/mixing sphere that is dominated by the likes of Rittenhouse, Bulleit Rye, Dickel Rye, Old Forester Rye and Old Overholt. One suspects that’s the reason for the higher proof as well, with the extra one point of proof (101) being a symbolic one-upsmanship of the 100 proof Rittenhouse and Old Forester ryes. A rather cheeky move by owners Latitude Beverage, if I do say so myself.
Now, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, this is a modern, high-rye whiskey for sure. Big peppery rye and lots of baking spices hit big immediately, with “charred cinnamon stick” appearing prominently. Orange essential oil and black cherry fruitiness announce their presence as well, but the really big note is a fairly intense brown sugar sweetness. It certainly projects more of a sense of richness than I was expecting.
On the palate, this is likewise a sweeter and richer dram than I was really expecting, especially given the lack of corn in the grist. There’s tons of brown sugar and caramel here, and almost a “hot chocolate” sort of cocoa note, which transitions into cinnamon sugar, juicy maraschino cherry and plenty of rye spice, with flashes of heat—although not too much really, considering the 101 proof. As I go back for repeated sips, the rye graininess presents itself more, with somewhat more of a rye bread profile, although it’s the baking spice/caramelized sugar elements that make this one go.
All in all, this wasn’t quite the dryer, spicier rye I was expecting, but I found myself charmed by it regardless. Certainly, this is very flavorful, and much richer in profile than something like Rittenhouse. That’s a bit against the prevailing cocktail culture when it comes to use in classic rye cocktails, but I actually think it’s likely to acquit itself very well in them regardless. All in all, I’d say I like this even more than the Old Forester Rye when it comes to selecting a budget cocktail rye, and I think it could have challenged for the top spot in our blind tasting of cheap ryes had it been available then.
Wheel Horse Rye will be headed straight to my bar cart for mixed drink/cocktail purposes. At that $27.99 MSRP, it fits in very well alongside its direct competition, provided you enjoy its sweeter, richer profile.
Distillery: O.Z. Tyler (via Latitude Beverage)
City: Owensboro, KY
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 50.5% (101 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $27.99
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.