It’s a patient bunch of folks, over at Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling. Not many distilleries can claim to have waited until they had a four-year-old, bottled-in-bond product ready before they put out the first release of their own distillate. Not just a “straight bourbon,” mind you, but a 4-year-old, 100-proof, aged-in-a-bonded-warehouse bourbon, which makes New Riff one of the companies that has helped to repopularize the very term bottled in bond in the last five years or so. These guys took their time, and they were rewarded with a lot of critical acclaim for their troubles, and a prominent position on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
At the same time as they were gaining accolades for their bourbon, however, New Riff was also toiling away on bottled-in-bond rye whiskey, using a method that is both familiar and unusual at the same time. The New Riff rye whiskey mashbill initially looks familiar, when expressed as “95/5”—it’s inspired by the famous 95% rye, 5% malted barley recipe utilized by rye powerhouse MGP of Indiana in countless sourced whiskey brands. But the New Riff rye recipe is a bit different, trading in the small amount of malted barley for malted rye—techniques that New Riff founder Ken Lewis learned directly from former Seagram’s (now MGP) Master Distiller Larry Ebersold, who invented the original 95/5 recipe in the first place. What we have here, then, is a Kentucky spin on that classic Indiana formula.
New Riff has, in the last few years, also introduced a series of single barrel, cask-strength brands, which highlights both the single barrel variations one would expect, and New Riff’s relatively low barrel entry proof. This is another process that has come into vogue among the leading edge of distilleries, who believe that lower barrel entry proofs result in a better flavor profile than higher ones, although it does mean that higher-proof releases (beyond 115 proof or so) become impossible. It’s a trade-off, in this case.
Today, we have one of those single barrels of rye to taste. This particular bottle, which notes it was from Barrel No. 15-6603, was aged “at least 4 years” and was bottled without chill filtration, at a barrel proof of 111. With all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, the rye grain quickly presents itself, and this whiskey immediately strikes me as possessing a savory combination of elements—toasted bread crust, a whiff of mesquite smoke, anise or caraway spice and hints of red fruit, with perhaps a greener and more grassy note as well. I’m not getting many sweeter elements here—not a lot of caramel or vanilla. Rather, this seems almost meaty, with a bit of savory smokiness, although I appreciate how subdued the ethanol seems to be on the nose.
On the palate, this is very “rye spicy” indeed, with a blast of pepper, tobacco and herbaceousness (dill, thyme) and a hard-to-place element of dark fruit that seems to come and go from sip to sip. Again it seems slightly smoky, in an almost mesquite kind of way, and it’s quite dry, which only enhances the impression of its savoriness. I’m not getting the backbone of corny sweetness, certainly, that is present in New Riff’s bourbon—this favors greener notes, and maybe at ouch of burnt caramel. Alcohol heat is moderate, but certainly not oppressive. It doesn’t feel like more than 111 proof, anyway, which is a good thing.
All in all, this is quite the individualistic rye. I can appreciate what they’re going for, but I find myself at least somewhat missing the greater sense of balance between rye spice and sweetness found in New Riff’s bourbons, which already read as pretty close to rye whiskey themselves, with their very expressive high-rye mash bill. I’ll be revisiting that bourbon in an upcoming piece, but at the very least, this is clearly an indication of the distillery’s desire to make a very “non-Kentucky-style” rye. Those who appreciate more savory, dry, rye-forward whiskeys will likely want to seek it out.
Distillery: New Riff Distilling
City: Newport, KY
Style: Straight rye whiskey, single barrel, barrel proof
ABV: 55.5% (111 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $55 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.