I’m pretty much completely small-c-catholic in my whisk(e)y tastes. So much so that I feel obliged to do the e-in-brackets thing when I write about general whisk(e)y. (Though that might just be social anxiety on my part).
But one style I do often struggle with is wheat whiskey.
Wheat is a bloody finicky grain when it comes to flavour. The chap whose whisk(e)y opinion I respect most once gave me the best analogy I’ve heard for it. “Rye is spice,” he said, “corn is sweet. Wheat is space.” We were talking American whiskey at the time, so barley didn’t really come up. But that’s a whole other can of worms.
Wheat simply doesn’t tend to contribute as much on the flavour front as other grains do. Rather it gives the other grains a canvas on which to express their own nuances. The trouble is – and this is something I’ve talked to a fair few US distillers about now – wheat doesn’t like being young. In fact, it hates it.
Young wheat is whiskey at its most spirity, estery and acetone-y. Without much flavour to speak of the alcohol is given a much freer hand. There is, after all, a reason it’s the base of choice for a large proportion of vodka. Of course, there are many reasons that modern young Scotch blends don’t tend to be anywhere near the quality they were in, say, the ‘60s, but not the least of them is the fact that most grain distilleries since then have switched from a sweet, plump, maize base to a more cost-effective wheat grain.
Given time, wheat can allow other grains to do wonderful things, whilst providing a luscious texture for them to sit upon. Just look at great editions of William Larue Weller or the Van Winkle range. But the only wheat-recipe bourbons I’ve enjoyed at less than 7 or so years old have had the wheat component tamed; either by seriously vigorous casks, or the use of cherrywood smoke.
Today’s whiskey isn’t even a wheat-recipe bourbon. It’s a full-on wheat whiskey, which means that at least 51% of its mashbill has to be my most love-hate grain. In fact in this instance the distillers, Dry Fly, have opted for a 100% wheat mash. That’s definitely not something you see very often. That said, my quality barometer for wheat whiskey, the simply exceptional Reservoir, was also 100% wheat. So here’s hoping.
I’ve only tried a few Dry Fly whiskies, but I rather like the cut of their jib. Founded in 2007, they’re based in Spokane, and describe themselves as a “Farm to Bottle” operation. I particularly like the sentence “we do not source our grains from a variety of producers” on their site. Local grains farmed by folk they know personally. Lovely job.
They make a variety of spirits, including gin, vodka, wheat-recipe bourbon and various whiskies using the wheat-rye hybrid Triticale. My interest is particularly piqued by their statement that a 10 year old single malt is imminent…
But it’s the wheat whiskey that I am pouring with trepidation into my glass today. The cask strength at that – they do a range of wheat whiskies – which is bottled at a hearty 60% ABV. Master of Malt currently have it at a pound per alcohol percentage (as do The Whisky Exchange) which, to be fair, is a lot cheaper than many cask strength US craft whiskies this side of the pond. Far from ‘cheap’ though, of course, especially for a whiskey at the tender age of “minimum 3 years”.
Dry Fly Straight Wheat Whiskey Cask Strength – Review
Colour: Caramel fudge.
On the nose: Loads of boozy up-front fumes. Quel surprise. These burn off eventually into quite a lot of sweet citrus. Oranges, satsumas and dried lemons. Candied peel too, such as you find jars of in expensive hampers at this time of year. An elusive spice (sweet again) plays in the background. Liquorice and cinnamon. Wheatbread dough. The faintest hint of acetone skulks behind all of this, but is relatively demure. For all its boozy bravado, the aromas themselves are rather delicate, lifted, and nuanced.
In the mouth: Just about enough body to account for the booze, though there’s more than a prickle or two of heat. The flavours, once again, are delicate; accented more towards grains and breads. More of the sweet spices – much more – plus black pepper, cedar and tobacco. A trace of banana alongside bright red cherries. The finish is long, and mostly based around wholemeal toast and caramel.
Dry Fly distil a heck of a spirit. They use tiny (450 litre) pots, which means their whiskey has body and character light years beyond the mealy-mouthed wheat that emerges so spinelessly from the average column. The acetone is dialled back by genuine richness; this is a spirit of massive potential, with more than enough stuffing to survive years and years in oak.
Which, I think, is my only real complaint with this cask strength fellow. Three years, I feel, is doing him a bit of a disservice. Whilst it certainly isn’t unpleasant, and demonstrates the obvious quality of the spirit itself, you can’t help but think as you sip that a few more years would take those flavours from delicate to indulgent. There’s a certain depth missing that would elevate this whiskey from good to great. It feels like a whiskey that is on its way, rather than at the natural end of its journey.
It’s still miles better than the average wheat whiskey though, and adds to my rapidly growing fondness for Dry Fly. Can’t wait to taste that 10 year old single malt. And if they have any 10 year old wheat whiskey knocking about I’ll be queueing up to taste that too.