“And always embrace things, people earth sky stars, as I do, freely and with the appropriate sense of space” ― Frank O’Hara.
The quote above can be found in “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” wherein, as the title suggests, the sun wakes the sleeping poet to offer its advice on his work. This line in particular always stood out to me, as it underscores much of what makes life beautiful. That is to say: a thing should be embraced for what it is at its core, but also given the grace to exist as a thing-unto-itself and without comparison to other things-of-its-sort.
That, of course, runs counter to much of what whiskey reviews intend to accomplish. We are tasked not only with judging a whiskey on its own merits, but also in assisting you, dear reader. In doing so, we must at times trot out the thief of joy – comparison – for the sake of furthering your understanding.
As Taylor recently noted in his consideration of two New Riff selections, I have at times been strongly opposed to reviews of store picks. They represent an exceedingly small segment of the alcohol made available by a distillery and, as such, serve only as a general indication of aptitude (or lack thereof) more so than a useful assessment of quality.
To say it plainly: single barrels are, by definition, exceptions. Because they are generally outliers, only attainable by a small subset of the whiskey-buying public, reviewing them seems to fall more into the category of “passing curiosity” rather than “helpful tool.”
That said, I appreciate them all the same because I enjoy them for precisely what they are. We all find ourselves prone to passing curiosities, whether it be gazing a beat longer at the attractive stranger on the street, or perusing musings on an unobtainable whiskey. Given the appropriate sense of space, we enable ourselves to enjoy “art for art’s sake,” and there is a great deal of beauty in that.
Today, however, I hope this review will be of specific assistance to you. I will be reviewing New Riff’s flagship expressions. For all the fanfare they received when they first launched – both for the quality of the whiskey and the stylish bottle that contains it – New Riff seems to have faded from the collective whiskey enthusiast’s consideration. With so many “new” distilleries popping up, it’s easy for any number of them to get lost in the ever-growing craft category which contains a swath of good-to-great producers with whiskey in the four-to-eight year range.
While New Riff’s single barrel selections are impressive (Taylor also reviewed a Justins’ House of Bourbon store pick), let’s find out today whether their off-the-shelf expressions warrant an embrace, or some continued space to see where they’ll be in a few years’ time.
Both the New Riff Straight Bourbon and the New Riff Straight Rye are bottled in bond products (and thus 100 proof/50% ABV) which are non-chill filtered. Let’s begin with a review of New Riff Bourbon, and note that New Riff bourbon contains a non-GMO mash bill of 65% corn, 30% rye, and 5% malted barley. Also of note is that all New Riff bourbon is aged for at least four years in 53 gallon barrels, which is the industry standard size, but one that craft distilleries often eschew. The MSRP for New Riff Bourbon is $45 though – in the interest of transparency – this bottle was provided to me at no cost.
New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Light amber with glints of orange
On the nose: Bright red maraschino cherries and cooked apricot emerge at first, joined by a bit of orange peel. There are also aromas of graham cracker and vanilla extract which are joined by black pepper, fresh hay, and a cactus-like leafy green note. There’s an overall light and sweet ripeness on the nose that’s pleasant which is accompanied by a vegetal streak reminiscent of pine plus suntan lotion. That’s surprisingly not a bad thing!
In the mouth: Immediately I’m struck by how lean the flavor profile is. Where the nose promised a cavalcade of interesting notes, on the palate I’m left with only blood orange with some slight turmeric and a touch of brown sugar thrown in. It’s slightly drying on the back end, though not distractingly so. It has a silky mouthfeel overall (owing, no doubt, to the fact it is non chill filtered) and so the dryness that encroaches on the finish is a welcome development that encourages continued sipping despite not being particularly long.
Here the nose makes promises that, unfortunately, the palate fails to keep. Where there’s a lovely mélange of fruit sweetness and intriguing vegetal notes to start, once it reaches the palate they dissipate disappointingly. All in all, it’s a good pour but the noticeable let down from nosing to sipping warrants criticism despite the generally promising construction here. At $45 it’s priced a hair higher than I’d like, but not enough to dock it an additional point as the overall value is fair.
Next let’s dive into New Riff’s Straight Rye whiskey. New Riff’s rye mash bill contains 95% rye following a style made famous by Seagram’s/MGP of Indiana, where Larry Ebersold (consulting Master Distiller for the rye) became known as the “Godfather of Rye Whiskey.” The so-called riff that they put on that iconic mash bill was to then include 5% malted rye, rather than malted barley, in an attempt to set themselves apart and remain true to their name.
As aforementioned, this New Riff Rye is a bottled in bond product (100 proof/50% ABV) which is aged at least four years in 53 gallon barrels and priced at $45 per 750ml bottle. Again, this bottle was provided to me at no cost to myself but I will be judging it based on the retail price.
New Riff Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: Flaxen honey.
On the nose: A rye-forward nose where sweet mint, faint black cherry, light black pepper, and a cotton candy-like sugary note take charge. A spot of honey and woodchips also waft out of the glass. Overall this is unmistakably a rye whiskey (as the mash bill confirms) but for those who are opposed to heavy spice and dill notes, they are almost entirely absent as this is a sweeter and more effervescent representation of the category.
In the mouth: The airy sugariness of cotton candy greets the tip of the tongue before a wave of sweet mint (think mint chewing gum) washes over the tongue. There’s a certain earthiness at midpalate that dulls the sweetness, the mint, and the overall pleasantness before a slight spice awakens on the finish. Here I’m experiencing clove and the faintest indication of butterscotch. On repeat sips the black cherry from the nose belatedly joins the party and livens up the earthiness at midpalate making for an overall more cohesive pour. Like the bourbon the mouthfeel is smooth, which is to say it’s nice and not an afterthought. Again echoing the bourbon, the finish for this is on the short side.
Despite being more of a bourbon drinker than a rye guy, I don’t think it’s shocking to say that rye generally presents better at a younger age. That wisdom prevails here as the experience from nosing to tasting is more uniform and the flavors are more pronounced and pleasing in the rye than they are in the bourbon. I rather liked this one, as it had a chewy quality that leaves the bourbon in the dust and cotton candy-esque sugariness making it an easy choice for someone with an overactive sweet tooth like myself.
It may seem as though I’ve failed to live up to the quote at the top of this review, in comparing these two side by side (and in considering them as a reference point to Taylor’s previous write-ups) but I hope that with the appropriate sense of space you can appreciate each of these for what they are.
It isn’t every day that the sun speaks to a poet, just as it isn’t every day that a craft distillery chooses to wait 4 years for their distillate to “come of age” or forego the inexplicably popular chill filtration process before presenting it to consumers. Though these are trends being embraced by other craft distilleries (there I go comparing again…) they are commendable decisions and ones that have paid dividends for New Riff’s flagship expressions.
If you haven’t revisited either of these whiskeys since they were first released 3 years ago, here’s your cue to embrace them once again. It will deepen your appreciation for what those exceptional single barrel selections are able to accomplish.
Photos (and bottles) courtesy of New Riff.