REVIEW: Wild Buck Rye

Wild Buck Rye (Small Batch, 100% Rye)
100 Proof – NJoy Spirits

All along the Bourbon Trail, tour guides at Kentucky’s best-known distilleries tout the state’s limestone filtered water, the combination of its hot summers and cold winters, and its ancient ricks as the perfect environment for producing the highest quality whiskey in the United States. But far from the stomping grounds of Beams and Pogues and Van Winkles, something is lurking in the cypress stands of Weeki Wachi, Florida. On an 80 acre farm and distillery, Kevin and Natalie Goff are making Wild Buck Rye. And they’re doing it the right way, often by hand. If you’re not a Floridian, odds are you haven’t encountered this small batch, 100% rye whiskey yet. (It’s available at ABC Liquor Stores throughout the state.) But once you taste it, I can promise you one thing: you’ll wish you’d found it sooner. Much sooner.

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Wild Buck Rye’s Copper setup.

Kevin and Natalie grow some of their own rye and are happy to disclose that what they can’t produce themselves is locally sourced from a grower about 20 minutes down the road. The operation is about as ecologically friendly as it gets: they grind their own grains daily, utilize collected rainwater in the mash cooking process, and use the spent grain to feed their livestock. Wild Buck Rye is twice distilled and bottled at 100 proof after aging for a minimum of ten months and maximum of seventeen months. (The blend balances out to about a year.) Unlike larger scale distilling operations, which work with standard-sized barrels, Wild Buck is blended from different sized barrels (ranging from 5 to 25 gallons) after they’ve been intentionally exposed to the Florida sun and even frequently rotated to “enhance” the aging process. The constant heat creates a relatively larger loss to evaporation (also known as the “Angel’s Share”) but also works some genuine, Deep South magic on the whiskey that does survive.

The nose on Wild Buck is a mix of caramel, sweet grain, dark chocolate, and wood; not much vanilla and just a hint of rye spice. Despite its scent profile, Wild Buck is not overly sweet. Be ready for an immediate, pleasant heat on the tongue that will give way to a spicy mix of wood and chocolatey-leather. The finish is relatively short for a spirit bottled at 100 proof, but it’s by no means harsh or bitter for such a young whiskey and it comes in two phases: the dissipating heat trail you expect, followed by the quick and unexpected resurgence of spice and wood on the back of the tongue, which more than makes up for the aforementioned dissipation.

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Wild Buck Rye, 50% ABV

Full disclosure: Wild Buck Rye is probably not for newcomers to whiskey, especially if said newcomer has been introduced to the genre on a diet of wheated products or 80 proofs. This isn’t a muted or sweet spirit, and I mean that as a true compliment. This is the kind of whiskey that should come out for company when the folks who won’t know the difference—or who don’t care about the difference—have gone home. It’s hearty and earthy and rye drinkers will love it neat or on the rocks with a single cube. All of this in mind, perhaps the best news I can deliver is that Kevin and Natalie are in the process of upgrading to a significantly larger mash tub, which should increase their production capabilities dramatically.

Value: Med-High—In the $50 to $55 range, this certainly isn’t on the cheap end of the rye spectrum, but it’s appropriately priced. Check here for a full range of shopping options.

Drinkability: Medium—As I said before, this probably shouldn’t be the first sip of whiskey someone ever takes, but it should definitely be in the mix once they know enough to appreciate it.

Overall Rating: 8.3

* Special thanks to Natalie and Kevin Goff for graciously providing a review sample.

REVIEW: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
90 Proof – Buffalo Trace Distillery

As a distillery, Buffalo Trace has an established reputation and long list of products that anyone who drinks bourbon—and many who don’t—know with second-hand familiarity. Popular tours and tastings draw thousands to their beautiful grounds on the banks of the Kentucky River, said to be the site of the centuries old ford for migrating herds from which the distillery draws its name. While tapping into the natural history of the area and trumpeting “the individuality and pioneering spirit of those early Americans” who first populated Kentucky, their physical plant also boasts historic ground as the original O. F. C. Distillery, and Buffalo Trace claims that of all their awards, they are most proud of their designation in 2013 as a National Historic Landmark.

This is obviously a brand that appreciates history (even its parent company, Sazerac, is a historic name), and one that can be rightfully proud of their distilling lineage: the names of previous O. F. C. owners E. H. Taylor, Jr. and George T. Stagg grace some of their finest—and scarcest—bottles. Indeed,it is probably for another rarity—the elusive Van Winkle series, the younger iterations of which are produced entirely by Buffalo Trace under the auspices of the Van Winkle family—that the distillery is best known.

But consumers who pay attention to Buffalo Trace Distillery purely for the hunt of a trophy Stagg or to share a glass with Pappy are missing an opportunity to enjoy a very fine pour from the brand’s namesake bottle, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Buffalo Trace was first recommended to me years ago by a man who offered as his credentials the fact that he had visited every distillery in Scotland; while I was more interested in his Kentucky travels, I purchased a bottle as a Father’s Day gift before a long drive to spend a week visiting my family. I arrived around midnight to find them sitting around a bonfire, awaiting my arrival with hot dogs and skewers. I proffered the gift, which was immediately opened, shared, and sampled by several participants. It survived the night, but not the week.

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Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 90 Proof

Buffalo Trace is an excellent introductory bourbon, sporting a simple, clean nose of anise and Australian licorice and bottled at a very manageable 90 proof. The light bouquet beckons the drinker by promising a mellow palate, which is smoothly delivered with far more sweetness than spice, conjuring fresh apples baked in brown sugar and very little rye. The finish brings a touch of heat, but overall, the mellow freshness and sweetness are present from sniff to swallow. This is not a challenging bourbon, but an eminently drinkable one. Poured over a single ice cube, you could be forgiven for thinking it belonged to a higher price range.

Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey isn’t a substitute for the distillery’s rarer, more complex brands, but a sweet, inviting, forgiving drink in its own right. It’s the bourbon you pour someone you’re trying to convert, the bourbon you pour on a weeknight for yourself, the bourbon you pour for the unsuspecting critic. No matter which, it’s a bourbon you’ll want to pour. -RCP

Value: High—At around $25, it satisfies for mixing, rocks, or neat drinking.

Drinkability: Highest—This is not a challenging bourbon, but one that will appeal to a wide audience.

Overall Rating: 8.2

*Special thanks to Kristie Wooldridge and the people at Buffalo Trace Distillery for generously providing a review sample.

REVIEW: WhistlePig 10 Year Straight Rye

WhistlePig 10 Year Straight Rye
100 Proof – WhistlePig Farm

In “American Pie,” the now immortal folk dirge from one-hit-wonder Don McLean, we find our depressed troubadour driving his Chevy to the levy where “them good old boys” were drinking whiskey and rye—and singing “this’ll be the day that I die, this’ll be the day that I die.” If they’d had a couple bottles of WhistlePig 10 Year Straight Rye, to quote the slightly-less-immortal but still iconic Uncle Rico, “everything woulda’ been different.” If my pop culture mashup of a song that defined a generation and a man who lived in his van offends you to the extent that you refuse to read further, at least walk away with this wisdom: this stuff is better than good. It’s great.

Lately, there’s been a bit of controversy concerning the real source of WhistlePig: the United States or Canada. At present, it looks like a mix of both. WhistlePig Farm in Vermont is growing hundreds of acres of rye to use for production and whiskey is currently being aged in barrels constructed from Vermont wood. That said, what’s available of the 10 year in stores right now was distilled in Canada before being selected for bottling in Vermont. This has some reviewers crying foul over what is essentially a well-executed PR campaign. Frankly, while I’m an advocate for age transparency, I don’t care much about the controversy here. The age of WP10SR isn’t in question and they’re far from being the only operation that bottles whiskey produced somewhere else. (Furthermore, from the Buffalo Trace Antiques to Maker’s Mark to Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Program, which successful distilling and/or bottling operation hasn’t put a PR twist on its products? Like it or not, whiskey is a business.) My main concern is how the whiskey tastes.

NEWS UPDATE: As of October 2015, a functional distilling facility has been installed on the WhistlePig Farm in Shoreham, Vermont. Current supplies of WP10SR have Canadian origins, but that will be changing in the future, making WhistlePig one of the rare “grain to glass” operations on the market. Click here to read the distillery’s press release in full.

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WhistlePig 10 Year Straight Rye, 100 Proof

The nose on WP10SR is a bouquet of oak, citrus, sweet vanilla, and caramel. (Note 1: the first time I sat down to taste, the caramel outmuscled the vanilla on the nose quite a bit.) The overall scent profile is sweet, but not “thin”—that is, the 100 proof spirit’s alcohol content doesn’t overwhelm its true flavor with a false sweetness. The first sip was all vanilla on the tongue, which surprised me; this was almost perfectly inverted from the smell test. (Note 2: the second time I sat down to taste, I got much more vanilla on the nose, and a more balanced flavor on the tongue.) Vanilla slowly gives way to a pairing of mellow warmth (lingering vanilla and caramel) and a healthy dose of rye spice in your mouth—the prelude to a long, balanced finish that leaves a pleasant trail of warm vanilla with a final small kick of rye deep down.

I’m typically a proponent of the idea that you paid for the whiskey, so you’ve earned the right to drink it however you’d like. I.e., if you want to mix $60 bourbon with ginger ale, do it, it’s yours and you should enjoy it. That said, this is sipping whiskey at its finest. It’s not cheap in the $75-$85 range, but given WP10SR’s depth of flavor and accessibility for drinkers of all experience levels, this is still a solid value purchase. -MCH

Value: Med-High
Drinkability: High
Overall Rating: 9.1

*Special thanks to Lana Gersten and the folks at WhistlePig for kindly providing a review sample.

REVIEW: Iowa Legendary Rye

Iowa Legendary Rye (White)
80 Proof, Small Batch – Iowa Legendary Rye of Carroll County, Iowa

Don’t let the cover—or in this case, the bottle—scare you away from Iowa Legendary Rye. Distilled in Carroll County, Iowa, this is a white whiskey (meaning it’s unaged) and produced in small batches from a recipe consisting of 100% rye. According to Rich and Lisa Eggers, the proprietors of ILR, their recipe has Prohibition era roots: “In 1920, Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. Unhappy with this new mandate, the self-reliant and fiercely independent men and women of Carroll County, Iowa, decided to defy that law and began producing their own rye whiskey … The recipe we follow is from one of those original moonshiners.” (Also of note: per the ILR website, the rye used is locally sourced from Iowa farmers—a nice change of pace after the mess that bubbled up concerning sourcing claims made, and apparently disproved, by Iowa’s best-known rye distiller, Templeton.)

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Iowa Legendary Rye and orange peel cocktail.

Now before pulling the cork on Iowa Legendary Rye, banish any thoughts of the harsh corn liquor your dad and uncles passed around the campfire or of bottom-shelf white whiskeys that might double as lighter fluid; instead, remember that just because it’s clear doesn’t mean it can’t taste good. Unlike other White Dogs, which have gained a small but steadily growing following thanks to popular releases by Buffalo Trace (White Dog Mash #1 and White Dog Rye Mash, both at 125 proof) and Heaven Hill (Trybox Series New Make and Trybox Series Rye New Make, both at 125 proof), ILR is bottled at a much more manageable 80 proof.

The nose on ILR is a mixture of spice, grain (not surprising given the rye content), and slight hints of floral sweetness—the latter almost like a fleeting, sugary citrus note. The first mouthful is thick and sweet with a muted alcohol flavor. Very soon after the sweetness dissipates and a spicier, rye flavor settles on the tip of the tongue. Just as the transition happens, the realization will dawn on you that Iowa Legendary Rye is actually a pleasant, and even sip-able White Dog. The finish is what you’d expect from an unaged, 100% rye recipe: long, long, long. But the heat is relatively mild and makes this a nice cold weather, out-on-the-porch drink for folks who aren’t looking to melt their windpipes. (Again, keep in mind that the ABV here is 5% to 22.5% lower than most of the other whites on the market.)

My second sitting with ILR involved some cocktail experimentation. Playing on the whiskey’s natural scents, I decided to mix a hearty pour with a small wedge of fresh navel orange and a single ice cube. After letting the fruit and ice commingle for about five minutes, the sugars of the orange paired well with the natural sweetness of the whiskey while the citrus flavor essentially masked any lingering notes of “raw alcohol.” In the end, the result was like eating a spicy, liquor-infused orange—and would be a great way to introduce more tentative drinkers to ILR. (A tangerine or grapefruit would also make for a solid substitution.)

Priced around $35, Iowa Legendary Rye is well worth your time if you can track down a bottle. Currently available online from Binny’s Beverage Depot and Ezra’s (if your state permits delivery), from various liquor stores in Iowa, or directly from the Iowa Legendary Rye store in Carroll County, this is a versatile rye despite its “youth.” And, if you fancy yourself an aficionado of White Dogs, this will be an especially valued addition to the collection. -MCH

Value: High
Drinkability: High (anyone)
Overall Rating: 7.8

*Special thanks to Lisa Eggers and the folks at Iowa Legendary Rye for kindly providing a review sample.