There’s no doubt that celebrity backing helps spirits brands get attention and coverage. Look at George Clooney and the tequila brand Casamigos, or Ryan Reynolds and Aviation Gin. Hell, look at Conor McGregor, whose star power has turned Proper No. 12 Irish Whiskey into a huge hit, despite the fact that it’s nothing more than a cheap, serviceable blending whiskey. Even if celebrity exposure can’t always help an inferior product, it does at the very least get eyes onto the bottle.
And for the most part, I have to admit that I don’t really care. It’s always next to impossible to really suss out what kind of level of involvement a musician, brand, actor, fighter, etc. had in a product’s development, especially when you’re selling something like sourced whiskey. All I care about is what’s in the bottle, and I hope you’re of similar mindset.
That said: We can all agree that Bob Dylan is an American music legend, right? Okay, good. And with Dylan being a folk legend, it only makes sense that he has his own whiskey brand. Heaven’s Door Whiskey is set to open its own distillery in downtown Nashville in 2020, but unsurprisingly to anyone who understands whiskey production, that means you won’t actually be TASTING any of his own distilled and aged product for years to come. Instead, everything produced by Heaven’s Door to date has been sourced, like so many other brands from young distilleries.
Heaven’s Door got a fair amount of coverage when it first released several of its bourbons last year, including a straight bourbon, a “double barrel” (finished in a second, toasted barrel) bourbon and a 10-year release, but we never got around to actually sampling them ourselves. A press release for the brand’s first rye whiskey release, however, caught our eye, with its promise of finishing its sourced rye in French oak, which has become very sought-after for its aromatic qualities. Here’s how the distillery describes its first rye release:
Heaven’s Door Straight Rye Whiskey is aged for seven years in new, charred American oak barrels. Breaking with tradition, the whiskey is then finished for an additional six months in toasted oak cigar barrels, which were harvested and air-dried in the low-lying region of Vosges, France. This unique and proprietary finishing—which has not been used before in whiskey making—results in a smoother, more approachable rye that allows notes of citrus and spice to shine.
The reference to “cigar barrels” has led some spirits reporters to erroneously report that this whiskey was aged in “barrels used to age tobacco,” but this is not the case. Rather, these unusual barrels are referred to as “cigar barrels” for their shape, which is longer and more narrow than the traditional 53-gallon American white oak barrel, which leads to more surface contact with the wood.
This rye is, as the description states, 7 years old and bottled at 92 proof, and comes from that famed source of so many other sourced ryes, MGP of Indiana. That presumably means the classic MGP 95% rye recipe was used. MSRP is a rather steep $79.99, which is noticeably more than something like Templeton 6 Year Rye, which also uses the same MGP juice, but doesn’t have the “cigar barrel” finishing process. Still, when the likes of Bulleit 12 Year Rye (also MGP) can often be found on the shelf for less than $50, you come to realize what you’re paying extra for here is a combination of “pretty bottle,” Bob Dylan branding and whatever effect the six months of “toasted oak cigar barrel finishing” imparts.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, I was utterly struck by just how much this rye embodies the aromatic profile so many other writers have long associated with MGP. It’s worth knowing that when I sampled this, I didn’t even know it was from MGP, and thus didn’t really have any preconception about how it would smell. I should also note that I’ve of course tasted many, many other MGP ryes in the past, but never have I tasted one that was so strongly redolent in the one note people always associate with the distillery’s rye: Dill pickle.
Holy cow, folks. It’s almost a gag or a foregone conclusion at this point that whiskey writers will describe any MGP rye as smelling/tasting like dill, or like pickles, but in the past those notes really never jumped out all that strongly at me. Never in the past did I stick my nose in a glass of rye and immediately think “Woah, this smells like a pickle” ... until this moment. Because this Heaven’s Door rye is extremely dill forward on the nose, in a way that is unlike even other MGP ryes I’ve reviewed in the past. Some distillers call that a flaw, while other drinkers love that note, but it is really strong here. Beyond the pickle chips, I’m getting toasty notes and some caramel, along with mild cinnamon and black pepper, but it’s really kind of difficult just to get beyond the dill in the first place.
On the palate, however this is a very spicy rye indeed. Intense black pepper and rye brad spiciness are signature flavors here, supported by green apple fruitiness and maybe a bit of lemon zest. The dill herbaceousness raises its head again, but it’s not as big as it was on the nose. Likewise, I can see how some of the writers may have allowed the savory nature of this rye to convince them that there was indeed tobacco in those “cigar barrels,” because it has a slight tobacco-like quality as well. There’s a bit of sweetness, but overall this is definitely on the drier side—less baking spice and richness, more classic rye in the sense that it’s drier, spicier and less rich than you’d expect in bourbon.
All in all, it’s a little bit difficult for me to say what exactly the cigar barrels/French oak might have contributed, as most of the notes here are typical of other MGP ryes on the market, and it lacks the warmer spices I usually associate with French oak-finished whiskeys. It’s a pretty archetypal modern, high rye, MGP-style product, but at $79.99 one might be expecting a bit more of a deviation from the profile that the distillery has established. One thing is for sure: If you don’t like that dill note, this isn’t going to be for you.
Does this mean Bob Dylan loves pickles? That would be an interesting revelation to come across while drinking rye whiskey.
Distillery: Heaven’s Door Whiskey (MGP of Indiana)
City: Nashville, TN
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 46% (92 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $79.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.