Monday, November 27, 2017

Sazerac Rye vs. Rittenhouse Rye

Sazerac Rye: straight rye whiskey, no age statement, 45%, $29
Rittenhouse Rye: straight rye whiskey, no age statement, 50%, $24

I’m often asked for my opinion of various whiskeys or for recommendations within a particular category. One recurring request is for a good quality, reasonable priced rye whiskey. And I’m always quick to answer; Sazerac Rye or Rittenhouse Rye (the prices listed above were what I saw in my local store, but these whiskeys are both typically in the $25 to $30 range). I’ve tasted and enjoyed them individually many times over the years, but I’m not sure if I had ever tasted them side-by-side before.

If you were to go back six years, my answer would also have included Wild Turkey Rye. But the highly regarded 101-proof bottling was temporarily discontinued early in 2012. While it did return nearly two years later, it is still yet to become widely available. The 81-proof variant that was introduced to fill the gap just doesn’t compare.

Sazerac Rye is produced by the Sazerac Company (headquartered Metairie, LA), at their Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY. Most rye whiskies distilled in Kentucky contain a percentage of rye in their mash bills that is at or just barely above the 51% minimum. Although Buffalo Trace does not disclose the specifics of their various mash bills, their rye whiskey recipe is generally considered to be roughly 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malted barley.

Sazerac Rye is bottled at 45% alcohol and carries no age statement, but it is widely regarded to be 6 years old. In fact, it is so often reported to be of that age, that I was surprised to learn this bottling has actually never had an age statement. As a Straight Rye, it must be aged at least 2 years, but the age statement only becomes optional at or above 4 years, so it must be at least that old.

Buffalo Trace produces two other rye whiskies from the same grain recipe, both of which are part of the hard-to-come-by Antique Collection; Sazerac 18 year old (also at 45%) and Thomas H. Handy (barrel proof and aged 6 to 8 years).

Rittenhouse Rye is produced by Heaven Hill (headquartered in Bardstown, KY) at their Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, KY. Heaven Hill chooses not to keep the details of their mash bills secret, and the rye they produce is frequently reported to use a recipe of 51% rye, 37% corn and 12% malted barley.

What I have at hand is the most frequently seen bottling of Rittenhouse Rye, which is Bottled in Bond. That designation requires the finished product to be at 50% alcohol, with a minimum age of 4 years (other BIB requirements are that the whiskey be the product of one distillery and from one distilling season, and that the distillery’s DSP number must appear on the label, as well as the DSP number of the bottling facility if it is different). This bottling carries no age statement, and the whiskey is unlikely to be significantly older than its 4 year minimum. Heaven Hill also produces two other rye whiskeys from the same distillate; a 40% alcohol version of Rittenhouse (which is far less common; I didn’t even realize it existed until I started researching this post), and Pikesville Rye (which only hit the market within the last year or two). The 80-proof Rittenhouse is a Straight Rye without and age statement, which means that it must be at least 4 years old. Pikesville is also a Straight Rye, but is bottled at 55% alcohol and carries a 6 year age statement.

On to the tasting:

The Sazerac Rye has a very aromatic nose, with lavender, clay and spice notes creating an uplifting introduction.
On the palate there is a touch of caramel sweetness up front, with floral rye notes taking over on the mid-palate. Spice notes build and evolve becoming more dominant and drier as it moves onward.
The finish is lengthy, warming and well-balanced.
Overall this is a lighter, brighter style of rye, but it still has plenty of character and transitions elegantly from start to finish.

The Rittenhouse Rye has a less expressive nose. The aromas that do come through are darker, leaning more in the direction of oak, charred wood and earthiness. Some spice and floral aromas are also present, but as much less obvious, secondary notes.
The darker character of the nose carries through on the palate as well. There’s a toffee-like sweetness up front, but drier notes of leather and wood (that are bordering on astringent) come on quickly and carry though the mid-palate, along with savory rye spice notes.
The spice turns a little more fiery on the finish, while clay and oakiness hang on in the background.
Overall, this is a darker, more brooding style of rye whiskey. While it is a little lacking in balance and refinement, it’s still a worthwhile option for the given price category.

Between these two, my preference definitely leans toward the Sazerac Rye, at least for sipping neat. But I could certainly see the Rittenhouse Rye coming into its own as part of a well-crafted Manhattan.

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