Microdistilling ain’t easy, and the truth of the matter is that it will never be easy. Even as spirits continue to enjoy dynamic growth and more drinkers develop palates nuanced in American bourbon and rye, it doesn’t really make the job of a small distillery much easier. They’re never going to be able to compete with the larger producers in terms of the premiumization they can give their products. Simply put, you’re not going to make a better 20-year bourbon than someone at Beam or Heaven Hill, because you’ll never have 20 years to catch up with their development. Nor will you be able to compete with those same distilleries on a price point for a two or four-year whiskey.
The obvious alternative is to innovate and produce spirits with specific flavor profiles that aren’t serviced by the titans of this industry—but in doing so, you run the risk of making products that are too “out there” to find a niche among drinkers who want more of the same. I can only imagine that this is maddening to people who dump new spirits into barrels, hoping a market will exist for them a few years later.
The reality is that this tends to make for some middling whiskeys while microdistilleries slowly figure things out. Oregon’s Rogue Spirits, better known for the craft brewery side of the equation, might be considered a poster child for that kind of slow evolution. They’ve been in the spirits game for much longer than most at 14 years, not always to the excitement of drinkers. In particular, their early whiskey releases had a degree of notoriety around them for the lack of age on the liquid—some bottles were sold after aging for only a few months. It was unclear if “time” and practice could simply be a cure-all for all of Rogue’s spirits, but it was something that certainly needed refinement.
Now, that patience is beginning to bear fruit. Rogue’s newest whiskey releases range from two years to five years in age, and we’re pleased to report that all of them have benefited. In particular, we’re focusing today on the 3-year-old Oregon Rye Whiskey and the 5-year-old Oregon Single Malt Whiskey.
The American consumer has more or less been trained at this point to expect a specific profile out of bottles with “rye whiskey” on the label, likely due to the prevalence of MGP of Indiana juice in so many different, seemingly separate rye brands. Rogue’s three-year Oregon Rye Whiskey diverges greatly from this profile, but much of that has to do with the rye grain itself—this is a malted rye whiskey, which are not commercially common. Rather than the “spicy rye bread” profile that is typically contributed by unmalted rye, the malted variation has more in common with malted barley—which is also found in this whiskey in abundance. The results are a bit unusual, and make me wonder why they wouldn’t call it something like “malted rye whiskey” on the bottle.
On the nose, Oregon Rye Whiskey is floral, malty and honey-sweet, with a fresh grassy note and overall profile that makes me think of many approachable Irish whiskys. There’s a doughiness to the grain/malt profile, without specifically evoking the more expected spice of rye. Apple fruitiness combines with mild caramelization for a pleasant “caramel apple” quality, chased by a sweetness that is almost butterscotch-like. Light notes of clovey spice round everything out.
All in all, Oregon Rye Whiskey is an interesting change of pace, although not exactly what many consumers will be expecting when they pick up a bottle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s not like there’s any lack of MGP ryes out there to buy. There’s not a great degree of complexity to its profile of florals, apple fruitiness and moderate sweetness, but it’s certainly approachable and agreeable. As for mixology potential, it’s hard to say—at 80 proof, it’s a bit on the light side for classic cocktails, but you might be able to substitute it into drinks that would usually call for a similar strength Irish whisky.
As far as I’m concerned, this is where things get interesting. “American single malts” are increasing in popularity these days, especially among the microdistillery crowd, which has the advantage of being less behind-the-times in terms of their investment into the style. The result in Rogue’s case is something interesting—a 100% malted barley single malt that combines some of the best aspects of American bourbon with the grain bill of Irish or Scottish whisky.
Of course, that’s my assumption. I’m assuming that this five-year product spent its time aging in newly charred American oak barrels (as a bourbon would), because it certainly tastes that way. It’s a fun novelty, because American drinkers don’t often get to drink malt whiskeys aged in this way—Irish and Scotch whiskys being aged in used American whiskey barrels, which doesn’t draw as much “char” and caramelized qualities. So although this bottle says “single malt” on the cover, don’t expect this to taste like scotch—and that’s not a bad thing at all.
On the nose, the five-year Oregon Single Malt Whiskey is slightly neutral but inviting, with moderate notes of caramel, oak and herbaceousness. On the palate it becomes more dynamic, with a strong caramel backbone—you can see above how much darker it is than the rye—and splashes of oak, mint, stone fruitiness and warming spices. Like the rye whiskey, this one is 80 proof, and features appropriately low alcohol heat while still retaining a respectable volume of flavor intensity. The wood certainly comes through with much more clarity after another two years in the barrel, and the spice notes are also much more pronounced, with very nice flourishes of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and cardamom. It’s still somewhat on the thin side in terms of mouthfeel and body, but that (along with the easygoing alcohol presence) makes Oregon Single Malt Whiskey an easy neat drinker. I sincerely believe that you could probably pass a glass of this off as bourbon to most drinkers, and they wouldn’t question it, and I mean that as a compliment.
All in all, I’m fascinated by the profile that Rogue has cultivated here. The end result is very promising, and I’d love to sample it at a higher proof at some point, but as it stands right now, the five-year version of Oregon Single Malt is drinking very nicely all on its own. Drink it neat; no need for ice or cocktail accouterments. I hope they’ll continue aging more of this juice, and that in 2023 I might be drinking 10-year-old Oregon Single Malt. That might really be something special.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.