I’ve been sampling so much unusual rye lately, or strange permutations on American whiskey in general, that it’s honestly refreshing to open a few new bottles of good old-fashioned straight rye that I’ve never tasted before. Because really, I’ve enjoyed the experimentation that 2016 has brought in the whiskey market … but I’m a sucker for the classics.
Today, I’m tasting two rye whiskeys from The Cooper Spirits Co., who were generous enough to provide samples. The first is a “vatted” rye—I was fairly unfamiliar with this term, but in this case it simply means a blend of differently aged straight ryes that are combined in a “vat” and then aged further before bottling. The second is old as the hills—a 16-year straight rye, which likely qualifies as the oldest rye I’ve ever tasted, as far as I can recall.
Spoiler alert: They’re both pretty excellent, although for different reasons.
I can’t help but wonder if this is the same rye that is used for Hochstadter’s 100 proof variation of their Slow & Low Rock and Rye bottled cocktail, but I’m not sure. The fact that they both involve 100 proof rye whiskey would seemingly point that way, but the bottled 100 proof Slow & Low clearly labels itself as being made with “8-year-old rye.” The vatted rye, on the other hand, is composed of five whiskeys that are aged from 4 to 15 years … so maybe that averages out to 8? Or maybe the 8-year is simply one of the five going into the vatted rye? Regardless, it’s not particularly important—but I will note that in terms of character, Hochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye does remind me of the whiskey character in its 100 proof version of Slow & Low.
On the nose, I get a really pronounced orange citrus note. I’ve heard that descriptor thrown around for whiskey on a regular basis, but never has that particular note jumped out at me like it does here. I also get some warming spices; cinnamon and nutmeg, before lots of toffee and deep, dark brown sugar. It suggests a certain richness that is no doubt contributed by the older stock in the blend. In comparison to say, MGP’s 95/5 rye formula that is so common now in Bulleit Rye and others, it has a nose less defined by rye spice, and suggests something sweeter, richer and punchier, with that nice, unexpected citrus balancing things out.
On the palate, this rye is bold, aggressive and a bit hot, even for a BIB-strength rye. Once again I’m getting that orange citrus, backed up by caramel, molasses and lingering spice. It is indeed a touch richer, a touch sweeter than most American rye, but I certainly don’t think that should disqualify it from your cocktail uses. In fact, that seems like the ideal arena for this rye, even if it drinks pretty well when neat. The obvious comparison is Rittenhouse BIB, also at 100 proof, and I wish that I had a bottle of it on hand right now to taste them side by side. But exactly as Rittenhouse has been a bartender’s trusted friend in crafting Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs and the like, Hochstadter’s could easily step into the same role. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.
Good lord, 16 years old. I’ve tasted a few ryes in the same neighborhood—WhistlePig expressions at 15, 14 and 12 years old—but 16 years is incredibly well aged for rye whiskey, which tends to be more youthful than bourbon. That is some crazy patience on display; enough to make a $150 price tag seem more or less reasonable. After all, WhistlePig’s offerings in the same age range are all $250-300, and Lock, Stock & Barrel is even a touch higher in proof as well, at 107. If you’re looking for “value” in the land of exorbitant rye, this might very well be it.
Contextless side note: I’m not really a fan of the black glass bottle. I’m not a designer by trade, but looking at it, I don’t think one would come to the conclusion that this was a $150 bottle of rye. If the design aesthetic was meant to evoke the DIY ethos of prohibition-era bootleggers, as it seemingly is, then it seems like it would be more fitting for a bottom shelf product rather than a top-shelf one. But I digress.
The first, and surprising thing I note about this rye whiskey on the nose is that it actually seems a little bit less aggressive and forward than the Hochstadter’s, as I tasted the two side by side. Gone is that juicy orange note, and the big suggestions of caramelization, instead replaced by much more spice, dark fruit and barrel notes. There’s lots of rye spice here, where there isn’t necessarily in the vatted rye, and then huge baking spice presence. Its red, berry-like fruitiness, laced with vanilla, is a nice touch that creates a distinctive profile along with the spice.
On the palate, the age comes forth more in the oak and spice than in any other facet. As in some of the other very well-aged rye that I’ve sampled—such as say, the WhistlePig 15 Year Estate Rye—the spices become hugely complex after this amount of time in the barrel: Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, you name it. Interestingly, though, I’m surprised to find that my perception of this whiskey is that it’s less hot and booze forward than the Hochstadter’s, despite being higher in proof … and at the same time, it’s also less sweet. What we have here instead is a drier, more complex rye that revels in spices and exotic, late-developing flavor notes of leather and tobacco. In this sense, it’s like the rye equivalent of a well-aged bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
It should probably go without saying that this whiskey is meant to be consumed neat; and I wonder if its spice character might be overwhelmed by the vermouth you’d use to put it in a Manhattan. Regardless, it’s a very pleasant sipper that your rye-loving friends are likely to appreciate as a night-ending (or beginning) dram.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer and whiskey guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks coverage.