As a drinker increasingly interested in the subtleties of my own senses and perception, there’s something that’s always interesting about tasting new bourbon from Old Forester. The Brown-Forman company produces quite a slew of different bourbons, but they all share one thing in common: They’re all made from the exact same mash bill, and they all come out of the same barrels. The flagship Old Forester 86 proof comes from the same barrels as the 100 proof “Signature,” or the Whiskey Row series, or expensive and sought-after bottles such as Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. It’s really one of the best illustrations of how complexity develops thanks to the intricacies of aging, blending and finishing—all the way from basic, approachable bourbon to rare, award-winning drams. Old Forester has that single bourbon recipe dialed in, and they stick with it, to their benefit.
Or at least they did stick with it, for just shy of 150 years (Old Forester will turn 150 in 2020). Now, on the eve of that big anniversary, the distillery is doing something it’s never done before: Release a product with a new recipe and a different grain bill. And it’s a straight rye! Reportedly based on the historic recipe for Normandy Rye, a defunct brand acquired by Brown-Forman all the way back in 1940, it features a mash bill of 65 percent rye, 15 percent corn and an unusually high 20 percent malted barley.
“Our signature bourbon recipe has done this brand proud through Prohibition, World Wars and changing consumer palates,” said Old Forester President Campbell Brown in a statement. “This January we will create a new tradition with a Kentucky Straight Rye that will capture the hearts and excite the palates of experienced Rye drinkers and curious whisky enthusiasts alike.”
There are a few things here that immediately stand out:
— The 65 percent rye content puts this brand in an interesting position between many Kentuckian, Beam-style ryes that hover right around 51 percent, and the currently popular high-rye brands such as Bulleit that sit around 95-100 percent. Seems like Old Forester is trying to split the difference by being “more rye” than other Kentucky-made rye whiskeys, while not straying too far from that profile.
— The 100 proof and $22.99 MSRP are really quite generous in terms of potential value. It’s no secret that the rye whiskey segment tends to be considerably more pricey than the bourbon market for similarly aged/similar strength products. The $23 price tag would put this one in the same neighborhood as competitor Rittenhouse, or even a few bucks cheaper, while being at the same proof. It’s also likely to be a few bucks cheaper than the pricing of Bulleit Rye in most stores, which certainly isn’t a mistake. In fact, the only comparable rye you’re going to perhaps find cheaper than this is Beam’s bonded version of Old Overholt—a whiskey I thought was okay, but not exactly in my wheelhouse.
So let’s get to the actual tasting, then!
On the nose, I’m definitely getting the floral impressions that Old Forester attributes to the large percentage of malted barley in this rye. Distinctly maple-like sweetness is also present here, with hints of butterscotch, wet oak, green apple and old leather. I’m reminded a bit more of Kentucky-style ryes than I am of nouveau, high-rye whiskies, but this is still pretty interesting.
On the palate, this whiskey is thinner of body and on the drier side overall than most Old Forester bourbons. Big black pepper spiciness announces the presence of the rye, with additional notes of apple and rye bread, supported by hints of maple sweetness. As I return to it, I find more of those floral impressions from earlier, and a pine-like woodiness that seems “fresh” and pleasant, if young. Alcohol heat is moderate—it’s there, but this goes down easy for 100 proof. I’m struck by how spicy this is overall, but for the most part it’s a purely peppery sort of spice—not big on the baking spices, aside from some light cinnamon. Personally, I’m a fan of peppery ryes, so I take this as a positive.
Ultimately, this rye is mildly unusual, but it succeeds at being a hybrid between Kentucky-style ryes and more modern rye whiskey recipes. I imagine that it would be versatile as a cocktail rye, while also being decent for neat drinking, and I absolutely cannot argue with the price. In terms of bang for your buck, it immediately becomes one of the best value bottles of rye whiskey on the market—a fine competitor to the Rittenhouses of the world. Can it compete against the pricier, longer-aged stuff rolling out of MGP and elsewhere? Not really, but it’s not supposed to. Old Forester is taking aim at the “everyday rye” segment here, and in that they’ve certainly succeeded.
Distillery: Old Forester (Brown-Forman)
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 50 percent (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $22.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.