“If the term was used correctly in recognition of previous accomplishments I wouldn’t mind it. It’s an honor to be called a Master Distiller, but I think it should be earned.” – Jim Rutledge
Jim Rutledge is a Master Distiller. In this day and age folks should be familiar with the oft-cited notion that “words matter” and it’s in the spirit of that belief that we should begin this review in this way. Jim’s experience in the spirits business dates back to November 1966, when he got his first job out of college working in the research and development plant for Seagram’s Calvert Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. During his time at Seagram, Jim worked in just about every imaginable area of production and he would go on to become the head of Industrial Engineering and Budgets up until 1975. The best, however, was yet to come.
That year the higher-ups at Seagram rewarded Jim’s burgeoning success with a new challenge: to leave Kentucky and join them at their New York headquarters as Chief Industrial Engineer for Seagram’s U.S. distilleries. Before long Jim took over long-range distillery planning and budgeting standards for all of Seagram’s U.S. distilleries, and he did so at a critical time.
By the late 70s and 80s bourbon’s popularity had taken a major hit and all of the largest distillery operations realized that they had far more whiskey than they had consumers to sell it to. So, in 1988 Jim made the decision to sell off certain brand names, like Eagle Rare and Henry McKenna, and focus on the only place in the world where the demand for bourbon was actually growing at that time: Japan.
Now, with a focus on the Four Roses brand – which had steadily seen increased interest in the Japanese market – the story of Jim Rutledge as most bourbon fans know it begins to pick up steam. All the while he was in New York, Jim was persistent in making mention of the fact that he longed to return to distillery operations where he got his start. Finally, in 1992 his wish was granted and he was transferred back to Kentucky to work in the warehousing center in Cox Creek where he became an administrator and forecaster before eventually stepping into the role of Four Roses Master Distiller in 1994.
From there, Jim toiled tirelessly over the course of countless 16-hour work days to improve the quality of the distillate being produced at Four Roses. He succeeded in that task in a few short months and then turned his sights toward ceasing the production of inferior blended whiskey and bringing Four Roses bourbon back to the U.S. market where it hadn’t been sold since the late 1950s. In 2002 – one year after being inducted into the inaugural class of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame – he succeeded at this as well, and he went on to turn Four Roses into one of the most venerable bourbon distilleries Kentucky has ever seen.
After retiring in 2015 from Four Roses, Jim could have opted to spend all of his time tending to the typical tasks of a recent retiree. He could have chosen to grace golf courses across America with his incredible stories, or even traveled the world as he formerly did as an ambassador for Four Roses, jet setting from country to country on an endless road of exploration. What Jim opted for instead makes far more sense for a man who spent nearly 50 years leaving an indelible mark on the whiskey industry. Jim Rutledge decided to be a Master Distiller.
“There’s nothing that I could do that I like more than being in a distillery.” – Jim Rutledge
He began contract distilling at Castle & Key while at the same time launching the J.W. Rutledge Distillery (named, of course, after the industry legend himself) for the purpose of producing whiskey under his new venture: Cream of Kentucky. Cream of Kentucky is a heritage brand which traces its history back to March 10, 1891, when it was first trademarked by the Edel Bros. as “Kentucky Cream Pure Rye Whisky.”
According to whiskey historian Michael R. Veach, the Edel Bros. were rectifiers who unfortunately saw their brand go out of business in the early 20th century. The brand was subsequently acquired by the Geo. T. Stagg Distillery before then becoming a Schenley brand when they purchased the Geo. T. Stagg Distillery during Prohibition.
Schenley would eventually discontinue Cream of Kentucky in the 1980s and the stock of barrels that supported the brand was sold. Their bourbon barrels went on to be used in brands like Old Charter and I.W. Harper, and notably some of their rye would go towards early bottlings of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. They also went into the now famous Willett single barrel bottlings of Red Hook Rye selected by LeNell Camacho Santa Ana for her eponymous store in Brooklyn, which closed in early 2009.
As you can see, the history of the Cream of Kentucky brand is situated at the nexus of several iconic American whiskey figures and expressions. Once revived by Stephen Camisa along with Jim Rutledge and their partner Jon Mowry in 2018, the brand officially went to market in 2019.
The first expression I will be reviewing today is from the Cream of Kentucky brand and, true to the original trademark, this one is a rye (though Jim Rutledge doesn’t believe any straight rye was actually sold under the “Cream of Kentucky” name). The first rye to be bottled under the revived Cream of Kentucky brand is NAS (confirmed to be six years old) and Bottled-in-Bond, making it 100 proof or 50% ABV. The suggested retail price is $70.
A few more pertinent details include that this blend consists of 70 barrels of 100% Rymin rye that was estate grown, distilled, aged, and bottled at Kentucky Artisan Distillery. Also of note is the fact that prior to this expression, Jim Rutledge had never produced a single rye or even a bottled in bond whiskey in his entire illustrious career. When asked about that fact, Jim informed me that despite this he did in fact have some experience in producing a rye whiskey for Seagram. However, that rye whiskey was only intended to be a small percentage in Seagram’s blended whiskey expressions, including Seagram’s 7 Crown Whiskey.
I’m excited as it is to try the first rye ever produced by Jim Rutledge but when it was suggested that I compare this inaugural rye release with the J.W. Rutledge Distillery’s second rye release, High Plains Rye, I leapt at the opportunity. High Plains Rye is an expression I’ve long had my eye on, as it’s a blend of five different rye whiskeys from four different states. However, before we get into that, let’s give the Cream of Kentucky Bottled in Bond Rye a try shall we?
Cream of Kentucky Bottled in Bond Rye – Review
Color: Dark gold with orange glints.
On the nose: Freshly baked bread and honeycomb wafts out of the glass at first, along with kola nut and overripe strawberries. After a quick swirl I begin to pick up dill weed, spearmint, and mineral water, along with sawdust and some faint cayenne pepper. Lastly there’s a hint of Golden Delicious apple skin and even some leather. The aromas are light and inviting without ever veering too far in any one direction, save for the cereal-forward breadiness and honeycomb notes which are the stars of the show.
In the mouth: Here on the palate the honey-drizzled Golden Delicious apples, dill weed, and cereal-forward notes feature prominently. When I say “cereal-forward” I’m thinking of whole grain oats and cornstarch like you might find in your bowl at breakfast. There’s a bit of faint cayenne that gives way to a dried-strawberry-and-raisin note at midpalate before freshly cracked black pepper emerges on the back end of each sip. The overall mouthfeel is silky without being too viscous. I rather enjoy that the finish has a subtle infusion of spice that blends harmoniously with a long-lasting honeycomb flavor, which is my preference (speaking as someone with a sweet tooth). However, with repeat sips the spice intensifies as though one forgot to tell the waiter “when” two shakes ago.
The nose was very unique for a rye and absolutely rewarded me for the ten minutes I spent sitting with it before giving it a taste. On the palate I found that the notes I enjoyed from the nose carry over in a big way on the front end of each sip. However, the front end and mid palate experience changes directions on the finish, where only the honey and raisin notes remain while star anise and black pepper increasingly supplant their sweetness. It has a nice medium finish, but one that veers too heavily into spice territory for my palate. When considering that it has an impressive depth and complexity plus a fair price along with everything else above, I’m happy awarding this a rating commensurate with “Good” in Malt’s scoring system because I certainly think it is worth a buy.
Next up we have Jim Rutledge’s second foray into the world of rye for the J.W. Rutledge Distillery: High Plains Rye. The sources that contributed to this blend are Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Kentucky, Middle West Distillery in Ohio, MGP Distillery in Indiana, and New York Distilling Company in New York.
Interestingly, when I asked Jim about a potential batch 2 of High Plains Rye he informed me that though they would have loved to continue this arrangement, one or more of the distilleries they sourced from for the first batch no longer have enough distillate to sell. Because of this, any future batches of High Plains Rye will likely be supported by a different group of distilleries. For me, that just adds to the intrigue, as the flavor profile continues to evolve over time with each blend.
Finally, for the specifics about High Plains Rye: it is bottled at 97 proof (48.5% ABV) and it also has no age statement, though all of the whiskeys in the blend are at least four years old. It carries a suggested retail price of $55.
High Plains Rye – Review
Color: Golden amber.
On the nose: It starts a bit mellow before blossoming with notes of rich caramel, milk chocolate, and sweet mint. In time it develops into a sort of mint chocolate chip ice cream and the spice cabinet flies open with notes of thyme, ground sage, and nutmeg. Sprouting underneath it all are hints of lemongrass, green tea with fresh lemon, and a slightly floral note. All in all this nose is more my speed and as I was going for my first sip I even picked out a bit of grilled apricot which was a fun last second surprise.
In the mouth: Lemon tea cake with semi-sweet milk chocolate, and mint make an initial impression. Soon after that I begin picking up white pepper, and a bit of honey-drizzled phyllo dough that sticks to the roof of my mouth. In contrast to Cream of Kentucky this rye has a soft start that allows plenty of runway for the well-balanced sweet notes to bloom. It isn’t as mouth coating or as spice-heavy on the finish but it does feature a gentle ascent of flavor that concludes in a satisfying, though noticeably mellow, climax. In time, like its predecessor, the spice does pick up but it never becomes overwhelming and it’s joined in concert with the grilled apricot from the nose which – though additionally sweet – does a fine job of cutting through the more desert-like notes.
While this array of flavors is more to my liking it is also notably less viscous and complex than Cream of Kentucky – owing, in part I’m sure, to the fact it is two years younger. For me, this is not an entirely bad thing as all of the sweet flavors are well-balanced and the slightly lower proof and mellow finish make it more enjoyable to return to for repeat sips.
Additionally, the price and overall flavor profile are both more approachable. It may not display the “artist’s touch” quite so much as Cream of Kentucky, but it succeeds in what I believe it sets out to do – being a crowd pleaser – while still showing telltale signs of Jim Rutledge’s master craftsmanship in deftly blending five different whiskeys together. It’s difficult for me to say this is “better” than Cream of Kentucky because they achieve different aims, but for its lower price and the more restrained spice being aligned with my taste, I’m comfortable rating this “Great” in accordance with Malt’s scoring system.
While I think High Plains Rye is the more approachable pour of the two, I have no doubt that Cream of Kentucky deserves a wide audience. As someone with a preference for bourbon over rye, I’ve stated many times that sweet flavors easily capture my heart. However if heavy spice is more to your liking, then Cream of Kentucky will doubtlessly impress you.
At any rate, both of these whiskeys have proven something to me that Jim Rutledge has proven to the world over for nearly three decades: being a master distiller is a distinction to be earned. By embracing an uncommon rye variety in one expression and expertly pulling together five disparate distillates in the second, Jim’s mastery of his craft is evident in both expressions. I’d like to thank Jim Rutledge and Stephen Camisa for taking the time to speak with me, provide some of the promotional material above, and share these two bottles of their whiskey.
Lastly I encourage you, dear reader, not just to try one or the other based on your preference for either sweetness or spice. Instead, I encourage you to take a chance and try both. I think it will give you a greater appreciation for the nuances that make up your personal preferences and prove that picking the “best” whiskey is not always as easy as it seems.
Bottles provided free of charge by J.W. Rutledge Distillery, which does not affect our notes or scores.