Bourbon. That’s what us modern day folk think of straight away when we think of American whiskey. This has not always been the case. Indeed, almost since Europeans set foot on North American soil, rye has had a much longer (and, arguably, far richer) history than it’s corn-based brethren.
Until the Probation era, rye was easily the most popular whiskey on the continent. A rapidly growing population, the fertile land of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia as well as the citizen’s thirst for whiskey caused a boom in rye whiskey production. Everything from small family distilleries all the way up to fairly large corporations got in on the action.
Viewed as a traditionally lower class and peasant grain for centuries, rye was a grain that the first European settlers in America knew quite a bit about. Rye didn’t become universally popular until American independence from the British. Up till then, rum from the the British Caribbean colonies ruled the roost. After the British blockade following independence, its citizens looked inward and to rye.
The rising popularity of rye went hand in hand with the first cocktail craze in the 1800’s. Originally made with cognac, the sazerac was made with rye following the phylloxera epidemic in France in the late 1800’s. The old-fashioned was originally rye-based. Rye was (and still is) very popular in Manhattans.
Unfortunately, all of this excess in the eyes of the more puritanical segment of the American population lead to the famous Prohibition laws of the 1920’s. After its repeal, many of the rye distilleries had long since closed, tastes had changed, traditions had been forgotten, and rye had mostly faded from memory.
History has a way of repeating itself, as they say. In the early 2000’s there was a renewed interest in cocktail culture as well as the historical spirit that was the base of so many re-discovered drinks from the the pre-Prohibition days. This increased demand and loosening of distilling laws in many states created has created a rye whiskey boom not seen since the late 1800’s. New distilleries specializing in rye have popped up all over the place including the American birthplace of the spirit in the eastern United States.
I’m admittedly glossing over quite a bit of history here. Whole books have been written about rye whiskey’s history and its ties to significant portions of early American history. I’ll definitely write more about it in future reviews.
This will be one of several rye reviews over the coming weeks. We’re starting in Virginia with Catoctin Creek. I’ll write more about this Virginia-based distillery in a couple of weeks. For now, this is a review of their entry level 80 proof Roundstone Rye. Each bottle comes from a single, new American oak barrel and is matured for at least two years. This is a 100% rye whiskey made in a pot still from organic, locally sourced grain. It’s also un-chill filtered. Lots of my favourite boxes are being ticked off here. Let’s dive in.
Nose: There’s quite an aroma coming off of this, given its proof. Let this be a lesson that alcohol strength and aroma intensity are not correlated. Thus endeth the science lesson :-P. Pot stilled rye is a gummy mess, but it’s well worth the trouble, especially when combined with non-chill filtration. Lots of those mouth-coating oils remain. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Given its youth, there’s plenty of the original distillate’s signature on this. Freshly bundled hay, slightly floral and this lovely, rich rye bread. The latter becomes stronger as you keep your nose in the glass for longer. There’s no harsh youthfulness on this at all. A lot of care has been taken here. A mild fruitiness in the form of fresh blackberries and mandarin oranges comes up after this sits in the glass for a while. The cask influence is light, but not negligible. Sponge toffee, a few sprinkles of cracked black pepper, a dash of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla.
Palate: That pot still distillation and non-chill filtration is really shining through now. The oily, mouth-coating sensation you get gives this whiskey a surprising heft straight away. It’s not very sweet upfront. A very light vanilla and orange cream. At the front end of the development, the tart fruitiness starts becomes noticeable, but it’s subtle. Cinnamon comes in half-way through followed by a bit of nutmeg and a surprising amount of clove. There’s obviously not a lot of heat on this, but there’s enough to let you know you’re drinking rye.
Finish: The oiliness extends the finish longer than anticipated. The spices slowly fade from the tongue. There’s a hint of cocoa powder at the beginning, but it doesn’t last long. The citrus sticks around till the end. I really like the balance between that and the spices.
With water added
I’m getting a little more of the cask influence now in the form of that toffee as well as good quality salted caramels, although the latter is quite faint. The mandarin orange is quite prominent now as are the floral aromas. Quite a change, yet I like the nose equally, both with and without water. That mouth-coating sensation has not faded at all on the palate. The backend of the palate is spicier, but it’s heavier on the pepper than the baking spices. The finish has more tang from the orange, which isn’t surprising, given what I got off the nose.
Since I opened this a month ago, this has pretty much been my go-to whiskey when I’m reading to my kids at bedtime (Anne of Green Gables for my youngest, John Bellairs books from my youth to my oldest). I can’t say enough how much I appreciate Catoctin Creek’s approach to making rye. Pot still distilled rye makes a monumental difference in flavour and mouthfeel, even if the process isn’t always easy.
At least in Alberta, you’re going to be paying double the price for this compared to local staples such as Alberta Premium and Canadian Club 100% Rye, but these can’t hold a candle next to this Roundstone Rye. Additionally, Catoctin Creek has a huge archive of traditional cocktail recipes on their site that are well worth a try with this one.