It may sound sometimes like I'm on a crusade against micro-distilleries. I'm really not. Quite the opposite. I have great hopes that small distilleries will revitalize the American distilled spirits industry. Problem is, most micro-distillery operations seem to be pushing out bullshit faster than any other product, which is perhaps not surprising since it is the easiest thing to make.
(Followed by their next-most-popular product, vodka.)
Now comes an outfit in Park City, Utah, called High West Distillery. Their premier product is a rye whiskey called Rendezvous Rye. It is 92 proof and selling for $40 per 750 ml bottle. The back label specifies a blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 17-year-old 80% rye.
It also uses the category designation "a blend of straight rye whiskeys." This, by itself, raises some alarms. That classification is for a mixture of straight rye whiskeys which, for some reason, does not conform to the standards for being called straight rye whiskey. Since any mixture of straight rye whiskeys made in the same state should qualify for the better classification of "straight rye whiskey," one wonders why this mixture was non-conforming. The frustration, of course, is that the makers aren't talking because they want to preserve the illusion that they made the product, which is impossible since they've only just gotten both their license and still.
But let's look at the rest of their claim: "a blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 17-year-old 80% rye." Although not crystal clear, the reference to a percentage would seem to refer to a mash bill. The problem is, nobody makes rye whiskey that way.
So here is a reality check and I encourage Scott Bush (Templeton) and David Perkins (High West) to address this issue. Get around these facts if you can:
Over the last 20 years, only five American distilleries have made rye whiskey. One of them, Anchor, can be set aside because they make very small quantities of a very idiosyncratic spirit that has very little to do with the tradition of American straight rye whiskey. The other four are Heaven Hill (using, at the moment, Brown-Forman's distillery), Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (Sazerac) and Jim Beam.
That's it. Those are the usual suspects. The Templeton Rye had to have been made by one of those four. Most likely the High West was too.
All of them make a mash bill that is about 51 percent rye, the balance being corn and barley malt.
Some of the very old ryes on the market today were made more than 20 years ago at the Medley Distillery in Owensboro and at the old Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, so there are two more suspects, but that's it. We can't be sure what their mash bills were, but they probably weren't more than about 60 percent rye.
What is left of that whiskey resides at Kentucky Bourbon Distillers LTD (KBD) in Bardstown, Kentucky, which has bottled it under a number of different labels, and sold it to others wishing to do the same. Setting aside the mash bill claims, KBD may have acquired some 6-year-old rye from, most likely, Heaven Hill and mixed in a little of its elderly whiskey (maybe, in fact, a 17-year-old) to make the High West product. That, based on the known facts, is the most likely scenario.
Personally, I hope it is that, because that would be an interesting product that might actually justify the price. I find most of KBD's very, very old bourbons and ryes too old, too woody, but take a little of that and add it to some good 6-year-old rye? That could be just the thing. I would be interested to try that product.
But back to the original issue. The bottom line is that any fully-aged rye whiskey on the market today has to come from one of the sources named above. That unavoidable fact is the reason why people like High West and Templeton aren't saying who made their whiskey. It's not only because they want you to think they made it. It's also because then it becomes easy to say, "Oh, that's Heaven Hill's rye? Well, you can pay $35 for it in a bottle that says 'Templeton,' or $40 in a bottle that says 'Rendezvous Rye,' or $12 in a bottle that says 'Rittenhouse,' which would you prefer?"
More than a decade ago, when Brown-Forman reopened what is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery, they wanted a Woodford Reserve product on the market right away, so they used whiskey made at their other Kentucky distillery. While they didn't print banner headlines about the whiskey's real source, the information was always there, and if you asked they always told you the truth.
I'm all for this micro-distiller thing, but when it seems like all of these characters are coming out of the box lying to the consumer, I'm already less than enthusiastic about their next act.
But that's just me, the grumpy old man. You kids, knock yourselves out.