Tasting: 2 Ol’ New Riff Whiskeys (Bourbon, Rye)

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Tasting: 2 Ol’ New Riff Whiskeys (Bourbon, Rye)

There are few endeavors in the whiskey world more inherently romantic–that’s capital “R” Romantic–than trying to faithfully recreate the bourbon or rye whiskeys of yore. After all, there are any number of reasons to believe that the product made today may very well be inherently superior to the whiskey being produced by a company at the turn of the 20th century, from advances in distillation to a greater understanding of aging and oak interaction. And yet, we are drawn to the idea of tasting “whiskey as it once was,” at least partially out of curiosity for the lived-in experiences of those who preceded us. What did most bourbon actually taste like, in the years before American Prohibition? Is it possible that it was actually better than much of what we have access to today, thanks to factors such as older oak trees producing denser wood? We’ll never be able to say for sure with 100% certainty, but New Riff Distilling’s latest project seeks to bring the past to life in the most literal way they could imagine.

The company recently announced this new line, dubbed Ol’ New Riff. The Ol’ New Riff series includes both bottled in bond Kentucky bourbon and rye whiskey, distinct from the distillery’s flagship product both in terms of different mash bills and bigger age statements. Impressively, New Riff took things one step farther by also aging these batches in what they refer to as “19th century-style barrels” that were produced without modern kiln-drying, along with heirloom Ohio Valley grains such as Blue Clarage and Yellow Leaming corn, and the brand’s signature Balboa Rye. Even the differences in water between the modern day and 1900 were considered, with the final goal of producing whiskeys that were as close as possible to what a Northern Kentucky distiller might have been able to create in 1900.

Ol’ New Riff is an experimental release, and not part of the company’s core portfolio or annual expressions. This first batch of Ol’ New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Ol’ New Riff Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey were made for the company’s Whiskey Club, whose patrons will have the first chance to pick up bottles. It will also be released in limited quantities at select Kentucky retailers, and will be available via pours at the distillery’s Aquifer Tasting Room.

So with that said, let’s get to tasting this evolved, historical expressions of New Riff’s classic Kentucky spirits.

Ol’ New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

MSRP: $55

The “Ol’ New Riff” version of the company’s bourbon mash bill feels simultaneously familiar and distinctive, substituting in a greater portion of malted barley for a mash bill that weighs in at 60% heirloom corn, 26% Balboa rye and 14% malted barley. Its 6 year age statement, meanwhile, falls neatly in between the 4 years of the flagship product and the especially impressive 8 Year Old Bourbon that New Riff recently debuted to great acclaim. Like the typical New Riff product, this qualifies as Bottled in Bond and is bottled at the typical 50% ABV (100 proof).

On the nose, this bourbon displays warm caramel and impressions of roasted nuts that also evoke brown butter to me. There’s some cocoa here, partially derived I think from the combination of toast/charred oak, but under those sweeter impressions there’s quite a lot of rye spice here as well. These notes evoke rye grain/bread, with subtle herbal tones, dried herbs and grassier impressions, while a slight licorice implies more rye-derived spice.

On the palate, this is certainly rye forward, even more so than the typical New Riff bourbon. It’s pretty peppery, with that impression fighting for dominance with caramel and more honeyed sweetness, joined by dried herbs and anise. The charred oak comes through strongly, contributing some astringent dryness at the end of each sip, and a lingering coffee roast. All in all, this reads a little more dry to me than the recent 8 year, and it doesn’t strike me as possessing the same depth of fruity richness as that bourbon, though some dried cherry is creeping in as I nurse this. But this doesn’t captivate my imagination quite like the 8-Year Bourbon did.

Ol’ New Riff Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

MSRP: $55

The rye whiskey of the Ol’ New Riff line is made with a mash bill of 65% Balboa rye, 30% heirloom corn and 15% malted barley, and is likewise bottled at 100 proof. On the nose, this one displays some notable similarities, but there’s no missing that the rye presence has been amped up considerably.

On the nose, I’m getting fresh dill and especially sweet mint here, with a little bit of a resinous quality. At the same time, there’s also toasted oak and more than a little cocoa, while it retains traces of the caramel from the bourbon. At the same time, it’s more grassy, but the toasted oak/cocoa note comes through really nicely. I quite like this nose, actually.

On the palate, this rye presents initially with loads of pepper, but also a toffee richness. Herbal notes are again supported by cocoa and toasted oak, with supple tannins. This give more of a mature vibe to me overall, with elements of leather creeping in, along with richer vanilla, a touch of smoke and dark dried fruits. Lingering dark chocolate is a signature characteristic as well.

Of these two releases, it’s the Ol’ New Riff Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey that really catches my eye, with its deft combination of sweet, savory and spicy elements. This one feels like it’s reached a very nice level of maturity, paying off with a complex rye whiskey that would probably be just as great in a classic cocktail as it is for neat drinking.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer and spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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