Saturday, December 20, 2008

Beam’s New Rye Is Not As Superficial As You Think.

I am an American whiskey enthusiast. So are many of my friends.

By that I mean the object of our enthusiasm is American whiskey, a category that includes several different types, primarily bourbon but also Tennessee and rye.

Recently, much has been written about the revival of rye whiskey. Rye dominated the 19th century, then nearly died out in the 20th. Its current popularity is tied to cocktail culture. Many classic whiskey drinks were historically made with rye.

Beam Global Spirits and Wine has long made rye whiskey at its distilleries in Kentucky. Beam makes Jim Beam Rye, obviously, but also Old Overholt, a venerable 19th century brand that originated in Pennsylvania.

Other Kentucky distilleries also make rye whiskey and have, in recent years, developed new products or line extensions. Some tout long aging, as much as 23 years, to justify a premium price. These products, like many others, are aimed directly at whiskey enthusiasts, i.e., me and my friends.

So earlier this year, hearing rumors that Beam was getting ready to drop its own premium rye, many of my enthusiast friends asked me about it. As I learned what Beam intended, my message became, "sorry, but it’s not for us."

That product is now here. It is called Rye One, aka (rī)¹.

The gimmicky name, high-style packaging and deluxe price (about $45) was all enthusiasts needed to see to know that we are not the intended audience. Clearly, the target is buyers of premium vodka and other luxury spirits, the type who think "Effen Vodka" is clever too.

I sympathize with my enthusiast brothers who have already rejected (rī)¹, but now that I’ve tried it, I say we should get past all that, because it’s a very nice whiskey. Price is still an obstacle, so let’s just pretend it isn’t and consider this rye only on its merits.

I like it. I like it very much.

What I like best about it is that it captures the whiskey at just that point in the aging process when the wood has softened most of its harshness, but before the barrel takes over completely. That’s a neat trick and it shows me that the people who developed this product did, in fact, spend as much time getting the whiskey right as they did getting the package and imagery right. Bravo! Good for them.

(rī)¹ has the same basic flavor profile as the other Jim Beam ryes except as noted above, and it also seems drier. It has rye’s spice, especially white pepper, but little of its muddiness. From the wood it takes a lot of vanilla, a little oak, but no ash, smoke or char. There’s citrus, but of a preserved lemon variety. That’s about it. (rī)¹ does not have multiple layers, but what it has is crisp and well-mannered.

Is it complex? Not particularly. Is it challenging? Not at all. If that is what you want, especially if that is what you are willing to pay $45 for, don’t bother. But if you want a rye that tastes good, mixes well, and looks fabulous, here you go.

Because (rī)¹ doesn’t hit you over the head, some enthusiasts find it bland. I prefer to call it subtle and sophisticated. It’s not a rye that makes you say "wow," it’s a rye that makes you say "nicely played."

This is what rye whiskey never tasted like before, but probably should have. More people would have liked rye and maybe even kept drinking it, instead of dropping it like a bad habit when lighter, milder drinks became available during and after Prohibition.

Most American whiskeys bear little resemblance to scotch or Canadian, but a few do. Blanton’s and Basil Hayden’s, both bourbons, are often compared to scotch. (rī)¹ falls into that category, with its subtle flavor and sophisticated character. (rī)¹ also makes me think about the better Canadians, which flaunt vanilla and some of rye grain’s friendlier qualities.

The main similarity is approachability. American whiskey, as a rule, is the most flavorful of the world’s spirit types and can easily overwhelm drinkers who come to it from milder drinks. Instead, (rī)¹ goes down easy.

Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Rye is a similar product that came out about a year ago, but didn’t go so far with the packaging, positioning, or price. They tried to have it both ways, with something for cocktailians and bourbonians. Beam went all in cocktailian, with launch events at the leading cocktail bars in major cities. In spite of all that, it’s a terrific whiskey that bourbonians should not ignore.

By the way, Beam has suggested there will be a (rī)², (rī)³, and so on.

This could get interesting.


sku said...

Interesting. I don't know much about the Beam rye line. Do they use different mashes for their now three ryes? Different aging?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Yes, different aging, although no age statements. Different selection profiles. One mash bill, yeast, etc. No one makes very much rye. They spend two or three days each season making rye, which is probably twice what they were doing a decade ago.