The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight…
Is it possible for a sequel to be better than the original? I’m hoping that’s the case, as today I’ll be tasting the follow up to a very good whiskey. I’m conscious of the challenges of carrying on after a hit; Mark P made reference to the problem of the “difficult second album,” and heightened expectations can often be the precursor to dour disappointment.
I recently reviewed the inaugural Pursuit United release, a blend of bourbon whiskeys. You could read that article for the nitty-gritty, but I believe actions speak louder than words. After finishing off the generously proportioned sample sent by Ryan and Kenny (of Bourbon Pursuit podcast and now Pursuit Spirits fame), I purchased my own full-sized bottle of the blend. When I bestow a positive score (defined here as > 5/10), it means that I’d be a repeat buyer of the whiskey in question, and I was happy to put that policy into practice.
One of the things that intrigued me most about the Pursuit United bourbon blend – and, perhaps, one of the reasons that I enjoyed it so much – was that it made me challenge my own preconceptions. That’s likely the case with most of the folks who tried the whiskey; if your average American whiskey drinker has any associations with blended American whiskey, they’re probably not positive ones.
Yet, the experience of sipping Pursuit United’s bourbon was a remarkably pleasurable one, on several levels. I found that the whiskey occupied the liminal space between “easily enjoyable daily sipper” and “serious and challenging whiskey demanding special consideration.” This versatility is a rarity and, to me, justified the relatively premium price of the bottle.
For their second act, Pursuit Spirits has brought us the Pursuit United Blended Straight Rye Whiskeys. As before, we’ve been given plenty of specifics about the components of the blend. Per the press release, this is a marriage of three mashbills from two different distilleries. From Maryland, we’ve got a Sagamore Spirit 52% rye, 43% corn, and 5% malted barley mash bill, plus another mashbill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley from that same distillery. These are combined with a 95% rye and 5% malted barley mashbill from Kentucky’s Bardstown Bourbon Company.
Looking only at these statistics (and not having tasted a drop of the blend yet), I am intrigued. I prefer a classic high rye style of the type being produced by the likes of Dad’s Hat, relative to the “barely legal” 51% rye style more common in Kentucky. Ironically, the high corn rye whiskey in this blend comes from Maryland, with the Kentucky rye being more like the old Eastern style. There’s enough in the way of twists and turns here that, again, I’m not sure what to expect.
To get more information on the development of this blend of rye whiskeys, I got in touch with Kenny Coleman via email. His answers to my questions follow:
Malt: I remember hearing you guys speak about the iterative, arduous process of trial-and-error that resulted in the bourbon blend. How did it go this time?
Kenny: I have to give credit to Ryan. He has really dialed in his process and now has a methodology. After we established a partnership with Sagamore Spirit, the blending process was completed in the matter of 3 months. Ryan was given rye whiskey lots from each distillery to figure out which way we wanted to learn.
Ryan created multiple blends where some were heavier on 95/5 or favored one mashbill over the others. This played with different flavor profiles that ranged from overly rye spice, mint, or dill. Both of us really enjoy Sagamore Spirits’s 52% Rye, 43% Corn, 5% Malted Barley mashbill, so we leaned there as a way to provide a rye that more bourbon lovers can appreciate.
Malt: Any insights about blending that you guys learned from the development of the bourbon that you think guided the creation of this rye?
Kenny: We wanted a rye that was uncommon and appealed to more bourbon lovers rather than pure rye drinkers. I don’t want to speak for Ryan, but he has really found a calling. Ryan’s method starts with finding a good base product that will comprise the majority of the blend. From there, more components are added to enhance certain flavors or dilute others. After blending two batches of bourbon, we felt more comfortable knowing what the outcome could be at scale.
Malt: You had an existing relationship with Bardstown Bourbon Company, but how did you come to select Sagamore as a partner?
Kenny: It’s a serendipitous story. After the success of the first bourbon release in January 2021, we immediately set our eyes on scaling the bourbon but also expanding into the rye category. The same process for sourcing or finding a distilling partner began.
We examined what aged stock was available on the open market which led to one place: MGP. We all know that MGP makes great products (we even have a few barrels of our own yet to be released) but we felt it would be missing the mark of what we are trying to accomplish with United. Consumers now expect 95/5 MGP Rye and the flavor profile it brings, but we felt there is more to explore. There are many successful brands that are built off bottling or blending MGP but we want to be different and be successful in our own way.
We talked to Bardstown Bourbon Company about options for rye whiskey and they suggested reaching out to Sagamore Spirit, since they are going to have their own four year products soon. A phone call and a few emails later, we were chatting with their CEO, Brian Treacy.
Initially, it took some convincing to explain we aren’t competing with their own product, but instead we wanted to present their rye in a new way to our audience. Like with all of our distilling partners, we pitched our vision and how our growth and success also leads to theirs. We can’t make a great blend if we didn’t have fantastic whiskey to start off with.
After getting some of Sagamore Spirit’s own distillate (not MGP sourced) we knew what they had was a home run. The story of combining Maryland and Kentucky rye whiskey has a deep historical connection that we can resurrect. Both states have been powerhouses for rye whiskey production and bringing the two together seemed fitting. Brian was even able to dig up an old bottle of blended Kentucky and Maryland rye whiskey that had a handshake embossed on the cap.
Malt: I was interested to see that the higher corn mash bill came from Maryland (a style I usually associate with Kentucky) while the Kentucky rye was in a more Eastern style of corn-free, very high rye mash bill, reminiscent of Pennsylvania. Any thoughts on how that came about?
Kenny Oddly enough, Baltimore style rye is in line with a low rye (barely legal rye) recipe such as Pikesville. The 95/5 we have all been accustomed to is more Indiana style that MGP has cemented into history. Choosing these mashbills is the same story with United bourbon. We blended with aged whiskey that was available and worked within those constraints. Beggars can’t be choosers and if we wanted our own custom rye whiskey mashbill it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of waiting.
Fortunately, the whiskey was great so there’s no need to go down that path. Knowing that we really wanted to showcase the blend of multiple masbills from multiple distilleries in different states we had our limited options but felt very fortunate we even got the opportunity. At the end of the day, I feel the blend speaks for itself and we’re really proud of how it came out.
Malt: How many barrels went into the batch?
Kenny: This first blend was nine barrels. Analogous to the first United bourbon blend that was 10 barrels. Start small and then work your way up. The second United bourbon was 40 barrels. It’s a matter of analyzing risk in your first attempt.
Malt: I noticed the release is more limited (in terms of numbers of bottles) than the last Pursuit United batch. Is there the intention to scale this up to a comparable size to the blended bourbon?
Kenny: We are putting down new make rye whiskey at both Sagamore Spirit and Bardstown Bourbon Company to scale this up. We have also secured aged stock contracts for the next few years so we can make this a yearly limited release. The next release in 2022 will be around 6,000 bottles, 2023 is targeting 12,000, and so on until we get to around 50,000 bottle releases. The final scale point will be 1/4 of the size of our bourbon in the years to come.
Thanks as always to Kenny for sharing his time, insights, and whiskey.
As far as age: I’m informed that the youngest whiskey in the blend was aged three years, eight months, 23 days, and that the oldest was four years, seven months, and 14 days. 2,076 bottles were produced, at the same proof (108; 54% ABV) as the blend of bourbons.
As with the blend of bourbons, the suggested retail price for this is $65. At time of writing, Seelbach’s had sold out of their entire stock of the first run. This is a sample provided free of charge by Pursuit Spirits which – per Malt policy – will not affect my notes or score.
Pursuit United Blended Straight Rye Whiskeys – Review
Color: Medium-light golden brown.
On the nose: Like the blend of bourbons this has an ample nose straightaway, though of a different character. I get a very plump and creamy note of vanilla, albeit one with varied accents such as pine needles, mocha, baking spice, cigar ash, coffee grounds, raspberries, and fruity espresso beans. This is an enthralling shapeshifter; one aroma emerges, melding seamlessly into another before disappearing. It never becomes repetitive, but rather makes me want to keep sniffing and sniffing.
In the mouth: Altogether more fruity to start, this presents a surprising taste of tart Ranier cherries on the tip of the tongue. Taking on a minerlic, drying texture, this moves into the middle of the mouth with another metamorphosis, this time of stone into grain. There’s no stark delineation, but rather a slow realization of a very pure rye note. It has that grain’s essential hallmarks such as pepper, expressed in a very elemental form. The tart fruit resurges in a sour, slightly bitter form as this enters the finish, which is the only point at which I sense imbalance in the whiskey. That bitterness calms down fast enough, however, leaving lingering flavors of varnished wood and a spicy tingle of black pepper. The grain notes are again present, fading eventually into a residual heat and dryly stony texture.
This is a style of rye whiskey I really enjoy. The nose is captivating; it appears immediately to be particularly possessed of one dominant note, though this starts changing quickly to incorporate diverse and interesting aromas that mingle and play nicely with one another. The palate, on the other hand, is more linear in its progression. I’m most satisfied with this whiskey in the middle of the mouth, where it does a remarkable job expressing those quintessential rye notes.
Whereas the blend of bourbon whiskeys felt more like a riff on available styles, this strikes me as something altogether different and better than competing options on the store shelf. I’m not sure I could go out and select another bottle of rye that allows the grain to speak with such a commanding voice but retains variegated flavors in balanced proportions. As a consequence, I am adding a point to the score I bestowed on that bottle. Once again, I’ll willingly buy this if I see a bottle on a retail shelf, and would encourage rye whiskey lovers to do likewise.