It’s been a treat to watch some of the whiskey industry’s earlier round of micro distilleries slowly “come of age,” as it were, in the last few years.
When High West Distillery was founded in 2006 and began its (very small, at the time) distilling operations in 2007, they were ahead of the game in their intuition that rye whiskey was going to come back in a big way in the American mixology scene. They began distilling and aging rye right off the bat, although it was always with the intention of eventually using their own distillate as part of a blend, rather than selling it directly. In the meantime, they sold blends of sourced rye for years, as both the popular and affordable Double Rye! and the splurgier flagship Rendezvous Rye made use of distillate from Indiana (MGP, of course) and and Kentucky (the Barton 1792 Distillery, which is interesting given that they don’t produce their own rye whiskey). High West did this for more than a decade, before finally inviting its own spirit into the mix.
These days, it’s a new High West, as the distillery is no longer sourcing rye from Kentucky, having swapped in its own house-distilled rye into the blend, marrying it with MGP’s classic 95% rye recipe that has been seen in so many other sourced, craft rye whiskeys. High West was always one of the most easy to admire of those sourcing MGP juice, though, for their determination to make that liquid unique before simply shipping it off to the consumer. And the addition of their own distillate for the last few years has just been the latest step in making their spirit unique.
It helps also that the rye whiskey being distilled in house by High West is some pretty unusual stuff in a few ways. For one, it’s a 100% rye whiskey, although the mash bill features 80% unmalted rye (which is traditional), and 20% malted rye, which is a style that has become more common in recent years. As with other malted grains, malted rye possesses a different flavor profile than the base grain, being less classically peppery-spicy, and more “doughy” and distinctly malty, at least to my palate. High West’s distillate is likewise made more distinct by the fact that it’s pot distilled, rather than using the large, continuous column stills that are the norm in the American whiskey industry. This has allowed High West’s distillate to match some of the more assertive flavor profiles of older ryes, despite its relatively younger age. The High West rye whiskey going into bottles like Double Rye! and Rendezvous Rye is itself a blend of the distillery’s own distillate at various ages, chosen for maximum complexity.
It had been a few years since the last time I tasted these two core ryes side by side, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit each of them. Tasting them, you can certainly see the influence that age plays in the High West distillate, and it makes me very curious to see what the company’s house-distilled bourbon will be like when it too is finally of age, although we’ll still be waiting a few more years for that. In the meantime, here are some fresh tastings of Double Rye! and Rendezvous Rye.
Double Rye! is a bottle you’ll see everywhere; a common cocktail bar fixture that we included in our recent piece on the best values across the rye whiskey spectrum today. This is a non-chill filtered release bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof), a “blend of straight rye whiskeys” made from a combination of MGP and High West ryes between 2 and 7 years of age. The MGP rye is of course the brand’s famous 95% rye, 5% malted barley recipe, while the High West rye is the aforementioned 80% rye, 20% malted rye recipe. Exact ratios aren’t disclosed, although the distillery has stated that their own distillate is always meant to be less than 50% of the final bottle.
On the nose, I’m getting some classic, spicy rye notes here that are typical of MGP’s product, including mint, dill and orange citrus, along with a ribbon of light toffee and florals, and a “dried thyme” herbaceousness. At the same time, there’s a sweeter element that I didn’t necessarily remember, and a hint of what is almost like maple syrup. It helps keep this from seemingly one-dimensionally spicy.
On the palate, I’m actually getting the slight “maltiness” this time around, as the malted rye is contributing a note not unlike the maltiness of strong tea. Of course, the rye spice is first and foremost—slightly green and grassy in nature, with honeyed sweetness, green tea and spice reminiscent of black pepper and cardamom/cinnamon. The assertiveness of those flavors is on point for the relatively low 92 proof, although the ethanol also speaks up a bit here—this doesn’t seem like a rye you’d criticize of lacking bombast relative to the proof.
All in all, it strikes me as it always has in the past, as a versatile cocktail rye suited to practically any application, although I’m getting more of the malty/honey/tea qualities this time around vs. my memory of this rye in the past. For some reason, this makes me want to make a hot toddy with it? Put that on the to-do list.
For what it’s worth, High West master distiller Brendan Coyle has stated in the past that the company doesn’t ever intend to transition to fully using its own stocks of rye, as they prefer the combination of pot-distilled and column-distilled whiskeys. So the formulation of something like Double Rye! is likely to stay very close to how it is now.
I have always been a fan of the Rendezvous Rye, which you might well consider the older brother of the Double Rye!, given their plethora of similarities. Both are now blends of MGP and High West-distilled rye whiskey, although the ratios likely aren’t the same. Both are found at the same 92 proof point. The one obvious area of difference is age, as the blend in Rendezvous is 4-7 years old, rather than 2-7. Honestly though, to taste them side by side, you’d think the age difference would be considerably greater.
On the nose, Rendezvous Rye has similar MGP herbal notes, but a more expressive profile of baking spices—cinnamon, clove and ginger. There’s a bit of dark honey, and perhaps a hint of berries, with a greater impression of savory and spicy oak as well.
On the palate, I find this one to have that rare combination of being “richer” than the preceding rye, but arguably less pure, residual sweetness, which may also be a factor of the greater oak presence. It’s less honeyed sweetness and more deeply caramelized sugars, with spicy oak, cinnamon hints of tobacco, while still retaining some of the dill/grass of the preceding dram. Certainly, you can’t miss the additional age and structure that Rendezvous Rye possesses on the palate. The baking spice profile is very pleasant, and it feels more integrated with the whole at this heat level—the whole whiskey is more deliberately balanced than in the Double Rye! This is very “well rounded,” as it were, equally enjoyable for cocktail applications or neat drinking.
The $60-70 price tag might overall make you wish for an even higher age statement (or proof point), but the result is quite versatile.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.