Rye Whiskey Review
This Rye Whiskey Review Showdown was shared with us by Joe Cornwall, who also wrote the Wild Turkey Rare Breed & Forgiven Review!
John Muir, the man known as “John of the Mountains” said this about autumn; “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” The founder of the Sierra Club almost certainly carried a bit of whiskey with him into the mountains, at least from time to time, to ward off the cold or just plain celebrate the majesty of the American West. Considering Muir published his most important works in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, it’s a safe bet that the whiskey he probably enjoyed was a classic rye.
In anticipation of those first frosty, cool mornings, please join me on a tour of contemporary ryes. It’s a style that has captivated my interest for quite some time. Just to keep things interesting, let’s look a quartet of distillates from four different distillers and see how they stack up. For this round-up I’ve settled on Crown Royal Northern Harvest, Pikesville, Colonel E H Taylor and Knob Creek Cask Strength. We can start by looking at the players one at a time.
You might recall that Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016 named Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as the World Whisky of the Year. Scoring it 97.5 points on a 100-point scale, Murray said of this expression “Rye, that most eloquent of grains, not just turning up to charm and enthrall but also take us through a routine which reaches new heights of beauty and complexity… To say this is a masterpiece is barely doing it justice.” Made from a mash bill that is 90% rye, this is a 90-proof whiskey that offers no age statement and retails for $30. It is readily available and easy to find. But is it as good as the buzz?
Coincidentally, Jim Murray named Pikesville rye from Heaven Hills Distillery as the Number 2 World Whiskey that same year. Just a scant five months after entering the market, this 6-year-old big brother to the outstanding Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond rye and cousin to both Elijah Craig and Henry McKenna was also named “Rye of the Year” and earned a double gold medal at the 21015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Weighing in at 110 proof, this is a “Maryland style” rye with a mash bill of 51 percent rye, with corn and barley having supporting roles. Pikesville is available at most better spirits shops and carries a price of $50.
Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr was a grand nephew of U.S. President Zachary Taylor. He is likely better known as the indirect founder of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a division of the Sezerac company. You will probably be interested to know that Sezerac rye was named “World Whisky of the Year” by Jim Murray’s 2010 Whiskey Bible, but unlike the Pikesville rye there’s no direct connection between the Sezerac and the CEHT other than corporate ownership.
The Colonel E. H. Taylor Rye reviewed here is a bottled-in-bond expression, befitting the man who lobbied to make Bottled-in-Bond Act a law that’s still with us today. As such, it’s at least 4-years old and is bottled at exactly 100-proof. Colonel E H Taylor Straight Rye is aged in BT Warehouse C, which was built when E. H. Taylor ran the company. It’s from a 95% rye, 5% barley mash bill (no corn) and is available for those who look around hard enough at a price of $70.
Knob Creek is a Jim Beam brand, now a part of the Beam Suntory conglomerate. It’s one of four Jim Beam small batch bourbon brands. The others are Booker’s, Baker’s and Basil Hayden’s. Earlier this year, Beam Suntory added some sparkle to the eyes of many a whiskey lover by releasing a stunning 120-proof, 9-year-old single barrel bourbon and then added a matching bookend in the form of this cask strength 119.6-proof rye. Made from a mash bill of 55% rye, 35% corn and 10% malt barley, the cask strength expression is a limited release that’s going to be a little tougher to find than the others on this list, but it is still (somewhat) available. It retails for $70. There is also a 100-proof version and a single cask version, neither of which I’ve tried.
To put together this review I tried each whiskey twice. I did it for you, because this is a serious publication and I’m a giver that way. The first time I tried each, I knew exactly what was in the glass. The second time around I enlisted the assistance of my patient wife who set them up for me in a blind tasting round. I offer my “visible” notes first, then I follow that with my notes from the blind round.
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
Joe’s Tasting Notes:
Visually this juice features a golden glow against the light and has good legs on a swirl. There’s a sweet nose with notes of vanilla and hints of baking spices. At the time of this tasting my bottle was already almost empty, so this sample has had enough time to oxidize.
In the mouth its surprising to taste the barrel first, then a sweetness spreads through the taste buds. A bit of cinnamon on the backside of the flavor profile leads into the gentle slope of a warming note, but there’s no raw alcohol burn. This is a very civilized drink. This whiskey isn’t oily, nor is it thin. It’s just very drinkable.
Very, very, drinkable….
In fact, I drank it all.
More than once.
The empty bottle pictured is at least my fourth dive into this expression since all the hoopla began in 2016.
Blind Tasting Notes:
Nose – sweeter than 2 (which was the KCCS), not as sweet as 1 (which was the Pikesville). The slightest ginger, some cinnamon and sugar but not overt.
Taste – sweet and easy to drink. Not thin, just no fire. This drink isn’t teasing me; instead it’s suggesting we spend a little time together and get comfortable. I can gulp this. It’s not complex, but it’s not simple either. It’s just friendly. Hello there, would you like to be my friend?
My guess is this is CRNHR. I was right, it’s the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
Joe’s Tasting Notes:
Caramel gold and amber, this rye has a beautiful depth of color. It is, by just the slightest amount, the darkest of the whiskies. There is a viscous sheeting when swirled that let’s you know this isn’t going to have a thin mouthfeel, even before you put your nose into the glass.
On the nose there is butterscotch and sweet, buttery notes. Apple comes out with a bit of aeration, along with a touch of pear. There’s some cinnamon and all spice and notes of menthol that invite a second sniff. This has a complex nose and I can’t wait to get int onto my taste buds!
In the mouth this is big enough to warrant some attention. Tastes of barrel char, oak, thick rye bread and cinnamon sugar cookies. This doesn’t taste like a 110-proof whiskey, but it’s clearly hotter than the ultra-smooth Crown Royal.
It might not be completely fair, because I’ve had my fill of the Crown Royal in the past, but of the Pikesville, CEHT and KCCS that I tried for the first time in the same evening, the Pikesville is the one that earned a second pour.
Blind Tasting Notes:
Nose – caramel, vanilla, hard candy, and just the slightest hint of white pepper.
Taste – This is immediately sweet with a little cinnamon and cardamom coming later in the profile. A slight tease of fruit and a hint of banana. Tingly spice that stays for a while after the sip. The rye grain flavor comes in during the aftertaste, which stays for a good long time. Deep, complex but easy to sip. Long flavor profile, this is really quite excellent.
My guess is this is KCCS. I was wrong, it’s Pikesville.
Colonel E H Taylor Straight Rye
Joe’s Tasting Notes:
The color is a glowing burnt orange sienna, nearly as dark as the Pikesville but with a redder tint. More orange that the Pikesville and slightly lighter in color than the Norther Harvest Rye. Very pretty. The sheeting collapses quickly on a swirl but instead of leaving legs it looks like the inside of the glass was painted with a roller.
On the nose I’m getting some raisin, blood orange, fresh cut lumber, black pepper, and just the lightest bit of menthol. I also get hints of pine and a layer of caramelized sugar.
This is a sharp rye, unapologetically bold and expecting you to expect that. Sip this an you know you’re drinking a real rye. Dry, complex and spicy, this whiskey is leaving me with a peppery finish that likes to hold on for a minute or so after the swallow. This is a sophisticated whiskey that’s got a strong rye grain note in the classic manner. The flavor profile hangs on for quite a while; this is a hell of a sipper! CEHT seems to drink a bit hotter than the Pikesville, a surprise since it’s giving up 10 proof at 100 versus the Pikesville’s 110. Even more surprising, it might even drink a bit hotter than the KCCS at 120-proof!
Blind Tasting Notes:
Nose – hints of caramel and vanilla. Some slight pepper and spice. This nose is a ghost. It’s very hard to parse what I’m getting here. There seems to be a suggestion of green apples, maybe like an apple pie as it’s just starting to cook. The aroma invites you in, but you’re not getting a picture until you commit.
Taste – dry, complex. Starts out with a lot going on, but it gets sweet in the second stage and finally some cinnamon and pepper on the backside. There’s definitely baking spice, and I can make out cinnamon, all spice and brown sugar. I feel like I need glasses for my taste buds as I just can’t read what’s happening on my tongue.
My guess is this is the CEHT. I was right, it’s the CEHT.
Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye
Joe’s Tasting Notes:
The “brownest” of the four, the KCCS has a viscosity similar to the CEHT. It is just slightly lighter in color than either the CEHT or the Pikesville, but you’d never notice if they weren’t side-by-side. The fluid clings to the side of the glass, collapsing under its own weight in a single sheet without tears.
On the nose the KCCS is bold and big. Sugar cake, banana nut bread, baking spice, brownies, and dark cacao come to mind. I want a sweater that makes me feel this warm and cuddled! Awesome nose!
First taste – BOOM! This is complex and has incredible depth of flavor. Sweet and spicy, but the pepper doesn’t hold on as long as it does in the CEHT or the Pikesville. There’s spice for sure, but it’s balanced and controlled. This rye drinks easier than either the CEHT or the Pikesville even though it clocks in at an astonishing 120 proof. Only the Crown Royal delivers a similar velvet-covered punch, but the Crown is fully one-third less volatile at 90 proof!
There’s no way you could guess the ABV of this juice, it’s so well integrated. This is an extremely well finished whiskey! By way of comparison, think about the interior of a Jaguar versus the interior of nearly any similarly priced competitor. Attention to detail means the Jag says “suave” in a way few cars do – and so does this juice. Beam sure knows how to squeeze the best out of a barrel of high wine!
Blind Tasting Notes:
Nose – a touch of menthol, charred oak, some berries and baking spices. Milky Way candy bar nougat.
Taste – The mouthfeel is a bit thinner than 1 In an immediate side-by-side comparison. Not quite as sweet. This has a dry profile like a good, dry extra-brut champagne. Black pepper comes in quickly but fades easily into a rye note that is just perceptibly carrying overtones of old oak. There’s a lot going on here, but it passes quickly. It’s not challenging me outright, but I’d really like another crack at it to see if I can tease out a bit more of the flavor profile. This whiskey is flirtatious! It’s not giving anything away! Might have to stay with this one for a while to get to know it, and that’s not a bad invitation by any stretch of the imagination!
My guess is this is the Pikesville. I was wrong, its Knob Creek Cask Strength
Note: wife’s nose wrinkled. She doesn’t like rye. This is serious rye.
This review was very educational for me. We always think we can drink past the label, but I found out that’s not true. When I saw the bottles and was tasting and sipping side-by-side I thought the Pikesville was the driest and the CRNHR was the sweetest. It turned out the Beam product had the more complex and drier flavor and the Pikesville is what I thought the KCCS should have tasted like!
One more thought – these four whiskies were far, far more alike than different. Had I had each on separate occasions and tasted them blind there’s almost no way I could tell them apart. The CRNHR is the most approachable and resonates best with me, so maybe… But it would be a fingers-crossed guess.
As you might have gleaned, I really like the Crown product. For the price this is something every rye fan needs to try. I love this rye in mixed drinks and on the rocks. I rarely drank it neat, mostly because I dismissed it as being a mass market product and, therefore, not quite up to that challenge. I was wrong. I loved the whiskey before I did this review and my respect has only grown.
The Knob Creek is a beast. 120-proof is a heater and it will lay you down if you don’t pay attention. And like its cousin Knob Creek single barrel bourbon, this one will surprise you as it doesn’t drink hot at all. That said, it’s excellent but I’m not dropping $70 on it again. I definitely wouldn’t pay secondary prices unless I really needed it to complete a collection.
The Pikesville is the real thing. This is as good a rye as I’ve had, and I’ve had a few. My list includes Willett, WhistlePig (but no Kentucky Owl!) and a baker’s dozen of others. I love the Rittenhouse BiB and this is better. I love the Templeton Good Stuff, and this is better. I can see this in my glass neat or in any mixed cocktails that deserve a quality pour. When I get home from my next business trip this will be the foundation of a Manhattan. I expect it to be impressive. It’s worth every penny. And its just different enough from the CRNHR that I can justify having both, especially at this price point.
That leaves the Colonel E. H. Taylor straight rye. No question, this is an absolutely lovely quaff. CEHT Straight Rye is something every rye-head should have in their glass at least once. But, like the Knob Creek, I’m not dropping $70 again and I won’t drive hours to get it when it’s allocated to a single-bottle purchase at that liquor store that’s an hour drive from my house. Desirable? Yes. An awesome gift bottle? You would be a friend, indeed! At the end of the day, it’s a very good rye but there it doesn’t tower above the competition.