What is MALT? Frankly, the answer is always in the eyes of the beholder, as it’s become clear to me that it means different things to different people. On a personal level, I want this to be a vibrant resource for all things whisky. All types of whiskey. Whether it’s Scotch, European, North American or further afield; we’d love to have more regular coverage of Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
My own take is that we’re more than just Scottish or English whisky. We have to be nowadays, to find those nuggets of inspiration. My own whisky journey is about discovery and not limiting myself to just a handful of distilleries. That means venturing out into the wider world and experiencing whiskies when the opportunity arises. Yes, I’ve probably been distracted these past 18 months, fuelling the fires here and experiencing whiskies that normally I’d never even have considered. Have there been any surprises? Generally, not many; in all honesty, the only surprises are how benign and mundane many Scotches are becoming. Rather than growing disenchanted with the situation, though, I’d rather double my efforts to look even harder for those gems.
One of my many responsibilities here is the schedule and variety. It’s impossible to please everyone, as many of you prefer traditional Scotch as opposed to bourbon and rye. MALT has grown tremendously, and we’re now used as a resource worldwide, so I do feel it’s important to cover other regions whilst retaining some balance. I’m interested in the craft distilleries in America, as much as I am with similar ventures in the UK and across Europe. I’d hope that a new visitor here will explore beyond the realms of their normal taste buds and interest. And above all: each whisky review/article/post—call it what you will—is simply a gateway to new information or discussion on a topic. The simple formula is to focus on the visible brands and review your big-name new releases or popular bourbons on a regular basis. That’s not our gig. I’d rather the team write about what interests them and why they felt inclined to make that purchase or effort.
All of this then brings us to another oddity in the form of this Sonoma County Distilling Black Truffle Rye Whiskey. The debut review of this distillery is long overdue, and we do have their staple bourbon in the MALT drafts, where it has languished and claimed the title of the longest maturating article. I’ll put that right soon, as what I’ve had from Sonoma Distilling has always been interesting, including their cherrywood release. The rules for flavoured bourbons versus bourbons are the same as rye: i.e. 51% corn swapped for rye. From speaking to my local bourbon stalker (Tony), there’s a real sense of purism for bourbon, that the flavours should be from the basic construct only; i.e. yeast, wood etc. Any addition should result in the term flavoured whiskey being applied, and in doing so, keeps bourbon as a separate entity, free from any tarnish. This is a great debate for a future article so let’s move onto what’s at hand right now.
This seasonal truffle rye concept underlines the “thinking outside of the box” from Sonoma, which delivered a world first when it debuted a couple of years ago. Utilising French Black Périgord truffles is a unique twist and is the sort of unique combination that always stimulates my interest. Bottled in a dinky 37.5cl size at a robust 50% strength, this release has reached UK shores previously, but promptly sold out and is now rather elusive. I have to thank the generosity of Rose once again for bringing across this release, which I swapped for two bottles of Lagavulin 16-year-old.
I approached Sonoma for a brief chat about the Black Truffle Rye and Adam Spiegel, owner and whiskey maker at Sonoma Distilling, kindly provided a unique insight into the concept.
MALT: What was the initial spark of inspiration for the black truffle rye whiskey?
Adam: The Black Truffle Rye Whiskey was a serendipitous collaboration with a close industry friend, Pam Bushling, here in Sonoma County; she has one of the best palates I know. Pam and I were talking about how I used rye whiskey in my cooking, specifically in one of my very favorite mushroom dishes. I’ve always found that the spicy notes of the rye pair beautifully with the umami of mushrooms and create a completely delicious dish. She raced to the back of the Michelin-starred restaurant in which she was the bar manager at the time, grabbed a slice of recently shaved black truffle, dropped it into a bottle of my cask strength rye whiskey and said, “let’s see what happens.” Two weeks later she came to the distillery and said, “you got to try this.” The rest is history, and my gratitude to her is on full display on the back label of each bottle of Sonoma Black Truffle Rye. Thank you, Pam!
MALT: Talk us through the process of picking out an actual truffle. Did you consider several varieties before selecting the most appropriate, and was the cost of such an ingredient a large factor?
Adam: Scaling up the experimental rye whiskey from a single serving to a batch was a challenge, along with identifying the right truffle. While I would love to use some of the newly cultivated local black truffles, I wanted the best. I tested truffles from Australia, Italy, Spain, France, and found the French Perigord to be the most flavorful, as well as the best complement to the whiskey. Because this is such a limited production expression, we could justify choosing the perfect truffle that could be a bit higher per pound. Every year, we contact a local importer—who by now knows our specifications—and they are harvested and sent overnight from Perigord, France. During that time, I hand select a special blend of Sonoma Rye Whiskey, our 100% rye whiskey, and only choose barrels over three years for this special blend.
MALT: Truffles are by nature very pungent. How difficult was it to strike a balance between this and the rye whiskey?
Adam: one of most important lessons I have learned as a distiller is balance. So, with this expression, I’m trying NOT to over-truffle the whiskey, because overdoing it can be a culinary disaster (as we’ve all noted at times with an over-use of truffle salt or essence). The effect we’re aiming for is much more subtle, yet still enticing—like enjoying a dram of rye whiskey while walking through a forest, breathing in the trees and pine cones, and then bam, you stumble on a coveted black truffle.
MALT: Have you kept any of the filled barrels aside for further maturation?
Adam: We don’t use whiskey barrels for maturation. In the early years, we tried this, and the truffle flavor diffused through the barrel’s staves. So, I hand select the whiskey and marry the two together in a stainless-steel tank, submerging the truffles for a little over six months of infusion.
MALT: This was released in 375ml bottles to keep the retail price affordable. Was this a conscious decision? Was there any feedback from vendors or customers on the smaller size? Do expect generally we’ll see more whiskies bottled in smaller sizes?
Adam: Speaking for myself, whiskey is meant to be drunk and enjoyed, and not to sit on a shelf to gather dust. So, the small format bottle would allow a lower barrier of entry, while still getting the price point one would expect from a straight whiskey infused with genuine black truffles. My hope was that people would buy it to enjoy with friends and family. The only other small format expression we currently offer is our new whiskey three-pack, which showcases our Sonoma Rye Whiskey, Sonoma Bourbon, and our Cherrywood Rye Whiskey (a rye whiskey with house-smoked cherrywood smoked barley added to the mash bill).
MALT: The primary unmalted rye grain comes from Canada, with the secondary grain being malted rye from the UK. What was the reasoning behind this combination? Is there a shortage of quality rye grain?
Adam: This mash bill of 100% rye, 80% unmalted (initially from Canada and now largely sourced from California), and 20% malted rye from the United Kingdom is our flagship rye whiskey. This whiskey was made with highest-level ingredients available, and in the early years, we spent much of our time trialing different ingredients to make this rye whiskey. Ultimately, the best rye malt came from the United Kingdom, so we continue to buy it, even at the larger cost versus buying domestic. For the largest component, our unmalted rye, we went to Canada first because they have been doing it for generations, but now our local farmers are producing Merced Rye, which we can buy freshly harvested and cleaned within 70 miles of the distillery.
MALT: What do you consider to be the future of the Sonoma truffle whiskey? A periodical exclusive, or an experiment that’s satisfied your curiosity?
Adam: I hope and believe this product will continue to be re-released each year for a growing consumer base who appreciate it and find unique ways to integrate it into celebratory meals and moments. I love looking at our Instagram page (@SonomaWhiskey) and seeing how people are including this whiskey as a top experience. Expect to see this every year in the fall! I will continue to grow this blend, slowly but surely.
MALT: Do you have any more intriguing combinations lined up in the future?
Adam: I have a couple tricks up my sleeve! Watch this space!
MALT: Is there anything you’d like to try with a rye or bourbon that’s currently not allowed?
Adam: Not really, I’m pretty boring, but I’m excited in the years to come to release my single malt, which is a nod to a traditional Scotch whisky. Using only used oak, we want to make something akin to what you would stumble on driving through the highlands of Scotland, minus the peat smoke. This gets me pretty excited.
Sonoma County Distilling Black Truffle Rye whiskey – review
Bottled 03/31/2017, cases produced 81 and this is bottle number 292. Primary grain is unmalted rye from Canada, the secondary grain is malted rye from the UK. Aged in new, charred American Oak for no less than 2 years. Unfiltered and hand bottled.
Colour: a golden honey.
On the nose: an earthiness from the truffle indicates a subtle influence alongside white button mushrooms. Glazed cherries take us to more tradition ground with sawdust, cranberry juice, cherrywood, fresh raspberries, chocolate, almonds and an arsenal of spices with cloves, black pepper and ginger.
In the mouth: gingerbread, resin, blackpepper, chocolate and cardamon. A dry soil, shittake mushrooms, hazelnuts and liquorice. There’s more cherries, a dirty vanilla, cranberry and all-spice that takes us into a slightly drying finish.
It works, it really does. I suppose the big relevation beyond this; is that a black truffle rye whiskey isn’t as wacky as you’d anticipated. That’s because the powerhouse of truffle flavour has been deployed with skill against the rye spirit. In essence, it’s a demonstration in balance, restraint and judgement.
A whiskey where you are able to taste the influence of both without losing the other half. In essence, a worthwhile marriage and more than just a talking point. Here’s to more experimentation from Sonoma County and check out our scoring guide.
Photographs kindly provided by Sonoma County Distilling other than the lead image.