As a distillery, how do you craft the story behind your brand? For Catoctin Creek Distillery, based in Purcellville, Virginia, there are several worthy candidates. It could have centred around the revelation that Scott Harris, co-founder of the distillery, had in 2008 while vacationing with his family in Ireland. In an interview with American Whiskey Magazine, Scott described his “aha!” moment of wanting to be a distiller while visiting Bushmills Distillery. As legend has it, he looked around the distillery, raised his arms to the whiskey heavens and quietly stated “I want THIS.” Another fun fact. Their signature Roundstone Rye takes its name from an Irish town of the same name located in County Galway.
Another possibility could have been the very familiar “second career” scenario. For the Harris’, Becky, Scott’s wife and co-founder of Catoctin, was a chemical engineer specializing in precision manufacturing of products such as contact lenses. Scott was a computer engineer for the US Navy looking for a change of scenery. Lacking prior distilling experience, they were able to lean on their previous careers to make their dream come to life, along with all of the challenges that entails.
These are all well and good, but what makes Catoctin Creek so special is how they tell their story through the history of rye whiskey itself. You need only visit their website to understand how central this is to the Harris’. In my previous review, I tried my best to provide the Cole’s notes on America’s first national spirit, but a more complete history can be found on their site and others, along with several well-written books. Through this historical telling, Becky and Scott convey what makes their rye so special. In several interviews, they mention having to fend off comments about their rye not tasting like rye. Being brought up on 51% rye products from the major producers or 95/5 (95% rye/5% malted barley) rye from MGP in Indiana, consumers have a pre-conceived notion of what rye is. The Harris’ answer, of course, is “our rye IS rye!” It’s just not the rye they’re used to.
For those willing to listen (and the audience is getting increasingly large these days), Becky and Scott explain that they’re just putting a modern touch on a very traditional process, one which spans literally hundreds of years. Certainly part of the explanation involves where the grain comes from (which is certified organic and comes from Virginia and Pennsylvania). Most important is how it is distilled. The use of copper pot stills for the distillation of rye is a method that goes back countless generations. Being a bit of a messy grain to distill, column distillation is the preferred method. Yet there is a flavour profile and mouthfeel that comes from pot still distillation that simply can’t be matched, as long as one is willing to go to the trouble.
Also central to the ethos of Catoctin Creek is helping other craft producers in America. Elected president of the American Craft Spirits Association (ACSA) in May 2020, Becky Harris strives to ensure that craft distilleries have a collective voice when it comes to easing regulations and lowering the barriers to distribution of their spirits. With every state in America having differing laws and regulations, Becky and the ACSA try to smooth the road for smaller distilleries who are looking to expand past the borders of their state.
Along with being president of the ACSA, Becky is also a board member of The Spirits Training Entrepreneurship Program for Underrepresented Professionals (STEPUP Foundation), which seeks to increase the participation of underserved and underrepresented individuals in the spirits industry. It’s no secret that the industry has long had a diversity problem, but initiatives like this help to ensure that women, visible minorities and those with physical impairments are increasingly represented. Becky clearly believes that if we all pick each other up, we all rise together.
Now let’s turn our attention to today’s review, Catoctin Creek’s 92 Proof Roundstone Rye. Called their “Distiller’s Edition”, Becky selects the top 10% of their barrels for this expression. Like all of Catoctin Creek’s whiskies, this one is made from 100% rye which is locally sourced and certified organic. It’s distilled in a copper pot still, and is aged for at least two years in 30 gallon, new American oak barrels (a quarter cask, for you Scotch people) treated with a #3 char. It’s bottled at 46% ABV.
Nose: Having previously reviewed the 80 proof version a couple of weeks ago, I get much of its signature here. The additional proof is certainly noticeable, however. More than anything, I’m getting a herbaceous quality that I didn’t get on the 80 proof. Not so much fresh herbs as dried. Like a citrus herbal tea. In terms of the spicing, cinnamon is there, as always, but also quite a healthy dose of allspice. The rye bread isn’t as strong as in the 80 proof, but it’s still there, topped with a thin scraping of orange marmalade. Other fruits waft up from the glass after a while. Blackberries for sure and also a faint Gala apple note.
Ever since I popped this bottle, I’ve been so intrigued by its nose. It’s really not like any other rye on the North American market. If I had to compare it to anything, it would probably be something like Millstone Rye from The Netherlands; another example of beautifully pot still distilled rye.
Palate: Like the 80 Proof Roundstone Rye, this has an amazingly oily texture that lasts for the whole experience. The entry kind of has this cooling sensation like mint, mixed with honey. The development slowly ramps up the spice. It’s deep, rich, and earthy, but without a lot of heat. Clove, allspice, cinnamon and maybe a touch of nutmeg. Mixed in with that are a few shavings of high cocoa dark chocolate. With all these spices and rich chocolate, the end of the development becomes progressively drier, but there is enough sponge toffee to balance that out a little. Besides some orange, the palate isn’t as fruity as the nose. Instead, the rye and barrel spices get to shine.
Finish: As with the 80 proof, the oily character of the palate gives way to a longer than expected finish. The dark chocolate really sticks around along with a light citrus tang. There’s a really nice tobacco note in here as well. It’s subtle, but it adds just that little extra depth to the finish.
With water added
I’m getting more of the grass/hay signature of the 80 proof, but with a fresh apricot note thrown in. Sponge toffee is in there, but it’s a little lighter. Some tobacco that I got on the finish without water is present as well. Although it’s faint, there’s a whiff of dark mint chocolate. Apricots from the nose are also present on the entry, along with a little more honey than before. The spices aren’t quite as rich, due to the lower proof, but there is actually a little more heat. The dark chocolate is more cocoa powder and the tobacco note certainly hasn’t abated.
Rye whiskey is still fighting to remove itself from Bourbon’s shadow, but for those open-minded individuals, a whole new world of whiskey resides within their very borders (along with American Single Malt). Although it possesses a unique palate, this 92 Proof Roundstone Rye is also very approachable with its Bourbon-style toffee and spices along with a subtle fruitiness and pleasant tobacco finish.