We’ve written before on the integral nature of rye whiskey to both the development of American spirits—it existed for likely a full century before the advent of bourbon—and the role that rye played in fueling the American craft cocktail renaissance. Suffice to say, rye has as much a claim to be “America’s whiskey” as bourbon, despite its perennially lower stature, and one also gets more an impression of rye as a crop (and a spirit) that is more likely to reflect the terroir of its source. Or at least, that’s certainly part of the pitch when it comes to Fallon, Nevada’s Frey Ranch and its estate-grown, distilled and aged rye whiskeys.
Frey Ranch belongs to a class of up-and-coming, “young” distilleries that get the air quotes treatment because they’re no longer such spring chickens that they’re relying on barely-aged spirits, or celebrating their first straight whiskey. More and more craft distilleries exist in this bracket now, able to offer moderately aged spirits that qualify for quality benchmarks such as bottled in bond status. It’s a sign of the American craft distilling market coming of age, and it’s coincided with a very welcome increase in quality from many of these operations as their homemade spirit rounds into form. Such has been the case for Frey Ranch, whose bourbon and rye whiskey has increasingly drawn attention from whiskey geeks and critics.
As for what we have to taste today, though, it’s all about the rye whiskey. On one hand, we’ve got one of Frey Ranch’s flagship products in the form of their 100 proof, bottled-in-bond rye, made from a 100% rye grist of winter rye grown on their own Nevada estate. But we also have a single barrel expression of the same rye (hitting shelves in Sept.), bottled at cask strength, which weighs in at a rather ridiculous barrel proof of 137. That’s going to be some serious rye, no doubt about it.
So with that said, let’s get straight to tasting.
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
This is essentially Frey Ranch’s core rye expression, and it has more than enough bonafide specs to make whiskey geeks take interest. It’s a 100% rye product, with a mash of 100% winter wheat from Frey’s own estate in Nevada, reportedly aged for five years in newly charred oak (#4 char barrels). It qualifies as bottled-in-bond and is bottled at the standard 100 proof you expect from that designation. All in all, that makes for a moderately aged, rye-forward rye whiskey of substantial strength, though the 137 barrel aged monster makes this one look much more approachable in comparison.
On the nose, my initial (delighted) thought was “buttered toast with cinnamon,” chased by some expressive fruity notes of cherries in syrup and something darker like stewed plum or prune. There’s some moderate oak, and a lot of deeply caramelized sugars as well. It smells pretty rich, all in all. The rye grain, meanwhile, emerges in more dramatic fashion on the palate, with significant rye spice and pepper, complemented by raspberry jam, moderate oak and some tannin. The spice is a very solid presence, but there’s also some sweeter caramels, darker caramelized sugars and the intensity of pure rye. Traces of barrel char give it a roastiness that suggests very dark chocolate—80% cacao bars.
All in all, I quite like this. It’s a “dark” rye in terms of its profile, and the fruitiness and char help set it apart. It would probably be an excellent cocktail rye, as its overall punchiness would be quite difficult to overlook.
ABV: 68.5% (137 proof)
The same rye whiskey, but orders of magnitude bigger and wilder. This monster weighs in at a rather crazy 137 proof, making it one of the biggest ryes I’ve sampled in recent memory without a doubt. There’s little doubt of their intention to blow the doors off in terms of flavor and intensity on this one. The 100 proof rye was already quite assertive; this one is a true flavor bomb.
The nose here is intense, with the fruitiness stepped way up. I’m getting a lot of big dried fruit impressions, raisin and prune, and vinous character as well—plum wine, or California zinfandel. This impression is no doubt fueled on some level by the level of alcohol, but it blends nice on the nose into the fruit profile that already exists. On the palate, meanwhile, this one presents with huge peppery and chile heat, along with musty oak and toastiness. The fruit is again intense, as is the char, evoking a vinous, dark fruity coffee roast. Rye spice is all encompassing, though it eventually gives way to leather and fruit cake. Heat is significant, as one would no doubt expect, but it’s really not quite as much of a bruiser in terms of ethanol as I expect it might be. Even without water, this isn’t too terribly difficult to drink neat, though I imagine a splash of water might be preferred by a good portion of drinkers.
All in all, an absolute flavor bomb without a doubt. One of the boldest and most assertive rye whiskeys I’ve tasted in the last several years, and a very memorably tasty one as well. It’s clear that Frey Ranch has come into their own, and their house rye profile puts them among the most skilled craft rye producers on the market today.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.