Just about any American whiskey drinker who has been paying attention in the last decade knows about the pervasive influence of the former Seagram’s plant known as MGP of Indiana. Since turning its production to (very high quality) bourbon and especially rye manufacturing, the plant’s massive capacity has allowed it to become the nation’s #1 supplier of well-aged, sourced bourbon and rye to young distilleries, which has occasionally been the source of controversy when distilleries fail to acknowledge this in their marketing. In particular, the plant’s 95 percent rye, 5 percent malted barley recipe for rye whiskey has completely changed the country’s perception of “rye whiskey” as a taste profile, because it’s everywhere in the liquor aisle, whether drinkers realize it or not. Brands such as Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye, High West, Sagamore Spirit Rye and many others all make use of that same 95 percent rye MGP juice, albeit in significantly different ways. But the point is, when you see “95 percent rye,” it’s almost always a safe assumption to guess that you’re drinking spirit from Indiana.
But then there’s Rabbit Hole, which is the reason we have to write “almost.” Their two year rye is also 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley, but the difference is that their product doesn’t hail from Indiana. Rather, it’s distilled in Kentucky—albeit, under the supervision of a master distiller (Larry Ebersold) who learned his craft at that old Seagram’s plant, before it ever became MGP. So perhaps it’s safe to say that the Rabbit Hole Rye is a contemporary—a scion, if you will—of that original Seagram’s tradition, taken root in Kentucky.
That’s the kind of unusual little wrinkle that makes me curious about a whiskey—along with the fact that I’m genuinely a fan of the 95 percent rye recipe from MGP. Coupled with an equally unusual twist in terms of the grain bill on their Rabbit Hole Bourbon, it left me curious to sample both of these young Kentucky whiskeys. So let’s get to it.
The most intriguing and unusual aspect of Rabbit Hole’s (2+ year old) bourbon is its weirdo grain bill. This bourbon is composed of 70 percent corn, 10 percent malted barley, 10 percent malted wheat (fairly rare) and 10 percent “honey malted” barley, which is quite unusual indeed. The only time I’ve heard of this specific malted barley offshoot is within the world of homebrewing, where I’ve actually brewed with it, but I’ve never seen it in a whiskey mash before. It is reported to contribute a strong sense of malty sweetness, with substantial honey character. It certainly implies that Rabbit Hole Bourbon will be on the sweeter and richer side, especially without the presence of any rye.
On the nose, this bourbon immediately strikes me as grainy, with a lot of butterscotch richness/sweetness, light herbaceousness and a whole lot of semi-aggressive booze. For 95 proof, the alcohol seems a tad on the wild side, and it makes it slightly difficult to get the full profile on the nose.
On the palate, however, the alcohol is less obstructive. Here I get a lot of grainy notes, which segue into caramel and bread crust/toastiness and more spice than one might expect for a non-rye bourbon: Cinnamon, clove and fennel seed. There isn’t much oak to be found, but moderate sweetness—it’s not the cloying, sugary thing you might fear after reading the “honey malt” passage above. There is a touch of maple syrup sweetness which works well, fading into a finish that is Cheerio-grainy, with a touch of smoke.
All in all, there are some interesting and assertive flavors at play here. I certainly would NOT have pegged this bourbon as being two years old—it’s among the bigger, more complex bourbons in that age range I’ve ever tasted. However, some more time in the wood will undoubtedly help tame the alcoholic fire it displays on the nose, along with imparting more balancing wood to go along with its sweetness. Rabbit Hole Bourbon is serviceable and interesting right now, but with a few years more age it might turn into something really great.
As stated above, although Rabbit Hole Rye has the same 95 percent rye, 5 percent malted barley mash bill as the whiskey produced by MGP, that’s where most of the similarities end. Like the bourbon, this one is a 95 proof spirit that is currently aged “2+” years. Visually, you can see that it’s just a touch lighter and more brilliantly clear than the bourbon in the glass.
On the nose, this one is a bit lighter, although that big alcohol note from the bourbon is still present to a degree. However, I find that it dominates the nose here less, which allows for some nice notes of apple, thyme, spearmint and grass/pine needles to come forward.
On the palate I get plenty of rye bread, with alcohol that is significantly better integrated than in the bourbon. Peppery spice meets plenty of mint—this is a distinctively minty rye—in a profile that then segues into fruitier notes of apple and stone fruit, before finishing with cocoa. In comparison with something like Bulleit Rye, this is undeniably more robust and more wild, while maintaining some of the same fruit and spice notes. Whereas the Bulleit would certainly be found more approachable by a lot of drinkers, Rabbit Hole is more explosive and arguably more complex. One thing is certain; this bottle is definitely more “ready to drink” right now than the bourbon, apparently requiring less time in the wood to form a profile that works.
Still, as with the bourbon, I’d love to see this one with some additional age as well. All that remains is to assess for your own budget whether the profile is worth a potential $50-60 MSRP, which is a lot to ask for a two-year whiskey. However, having tasted both Rabbit Hole bottles, I think it’s fair to say that these guys are getting significantly more bang out of those “two years” than most of their competitors.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.