What are friends for?
Since we first collaborated on a tasting across the Wild Turkey bourbon range, I have been privileged to call David Jennings my friend. Though our palates don’t always agree, we share a mutual respect for one another. The other thing we share is a set of values, among them honesty, transparency, and objectivity in whiskey reviewing.
David has recently joined forces with the Rare Character brand, helping to select barrels to be bottled under that label. As this is the first Rare Character whiskey featured on this site, a bit of an introduction is in order: Rare Character was started by Pablo Moix, known to whiskey lovers as the founder of the Old Lightning bar in Venice, California. After a decade of barrel pick experience, Pablo teamed up with Pete Nevenglosky of Drifter Spirits, known for the Avuá Cachaça brand. They later tempted Andy Shapira of Heaven Hill away from his family business to join the Rare Character team.
As for David’s involvement with Rare Character, he wrote this in a post to his Patreon supporters back in February of this year:
“A little over a month ago, I was contacted via email by Pablo Moix, Los Angeles restaurateur and founder of Rare Character Whiskey. Pablo had recently learned about my blog through Bruce Russell, and the former brand manager of Wild Turkey, Dom Alcocer. After an email exchange or two, we scheduled a phone call. That phone call led to a good hour-plus discussion of all things whiskey.
As it turns out, Pablo is holding a lot of aging barrels from a variety of sources. He was curious if I might be inclined to select one. While I was certainly interested, I stated that when it comes to sourced whiskey, there are three things I must have: 1. Transparency, 2. Fair pricing, and 3. Exceptional flavor. He promised he could deliver all three, so I asked him to shoot me some samples and I’d give them a taste with no commitment.”
David has subsequently done a number of bourbon and rye barrel picks in collaboration with Rare Character. The subject of today’s review is “Plume,” about which David had this to say:
“Back in March, I had the pleasure of tasting several extraordinary Rare Character Whiskey barrels in Louisville, KY. It was a memorable evening to say the least, as I was joined by Bruce Russell, Andy Shapira, several patrons, and of course, the incomparable Pablo Moix.
Of all the whiskeys we sampled that night, the rye barrels undoubtedly stole the show, particularly a 5-year PX Sherry finished rye (coming soon) and a 5-year (pushing 6-year) Kentucky straight rye. To say the straight rye was a head-turner would be an understatement. It received an immediate nod of approval from damn near everyone in the room, including Bruce.”
For those of you that don’t know, Bruce Russell is the grandson of Jimmy Russell, son of Eddie Russell, and the resident rye whiskey evangelist at Wild Turkey. Though I’m notoriously not a fan of the ryes from Lawrenceburg’s finest, today’s bottle seems to be a horse (or is that bird?) of a different color. More on that in a few moments…
While I am happy to support any good folks doing things the right way in whiskey – especially when they are personal friends – this puts me in an awkward position as a reviewer. Even if you believed that I was able to consciously suppress some of my positive bias in cases like this, there’s always the tricky issue of subconscious prejudice.
Nothing I will write in this space will convince those who believe these circumstances will result in a puff piece to big up my buddy, so I’m going to quit trying now. Instead, I’d like to point out another source of bias: the bottles. As we’ve noted time and again here on Malt, the prettiest of bottles means nothing if the liquid inside isn’t any good. That said, it’s better to have an attractive bottle than an ugly one, and they don’t get much better looking than these Rare Character bottles. Even subtracting points for the wax closure, the label was clearly designed with care by someone with a special competency in this area. The label pops, catching the interest of even meticulously trained eyes like my wife’s, herself an art historian.
Setting all that aside, let’s get down to the specifics of what we have here. As David foreshadowed, there’s a comparatively high amount of transparency here, in contrast to other independently bottled or NDP whiskeys on the market. Though this is Kentucky rye, it’s not a “barely legal” 51% rye from distilleries like Wild Turkey (reputed to be 52% rye, 36% corn, 12% barley), Heaven Hill, and others. Rather, this is a 95% rye, 5% malted barley mash bill (most commonly associated with MGP) from the Bardstown Bourbon Company.
Though the release price of $95 is a premium to some other Bardstown releases (of the type reviewed here by Frank), it’s a sight cheaper than the $140 being asked for their Discovery series blends. This has the added benefit of being bottled at cask strength, in this case 120.3 proof (60.15% ABV). On bottling, this had attained the age of six years, four months having been distilled in May 2016 and bottled in September 2022.
Rare Character “Plume” Rye – Review
Color: Dark chestnut with orange glints.
On the nose: This positively leaps from the glass with an intense floral note reminiscent of concentrated rosewater, as well as a sticky and sweet aroma of apricot marmalade. Underripe green grapes dance with a very subtle accent of ripe banana. Underneath all of this there is a stalky greenness and a telltale metallic note, lest you forget it’s a rye whiskey you’re nosing. Giving the nostrils a break and revisiting this after a few moments reveals a yeasty note of unbaked bread dough as well as a faint and intriguing spicy note of chili powder. More time reveals chili peppers and bell peppers, covered in a light coating of oaky vanilla.
In the mouth: Starts with a very pure, very serious note of unvarnished rye that sits squarely at the front of the mouth. This tightens up further as it moves toward midpalate, with a vegetal note of celery before loosening up a bit, allowing some of the spicy chili pepper notes to come back out to play. This is superb in the middle of the mouth, where the rye blooms once again as all that fruitiness resurges, albeit this time in a more underripe, tart manifestation. There’s a lovely soft touch of vanilla once again as it moves toward the finish, where the whiskey takes on a lingering meatiness. A bit of drying stoniness plays against the spice; the tongue and the lips tingle long after the last swallow.
This is a rye lover’s rye, by which I mean that it showcases a confident and self-assured expression of that grain’s distinctive hallmarks. Building upon that rock solid foundation, this absolutely soars at points on both the nose and mouth. The jammy fruitiness of the aromatic profile is excellent, more so for being balanced by the many varied influences across the breadth of the flavor spectrum. I find this tacks a bit more conventional on the palate, which is fine. It’s a great an example of rye whiskey, being as the unadulterated presentation allows all those classic flavors to sing at full volume.
I’ll be completely honest with you: I wasn’t planning on buying this when I learned about its release. Though I have nothing but respect for David, I am trying to limit my whiskey purchases and work down my existing inventory at the moment. $95 for a six-year-old Bardstown rye seemed a stretch, at least on paper, though the current whiskey market is happy to furnish more extreme examples of insanity on a seemingly daily basis.
So, what swayed me? Chatting with David about the bottle, his enthusiasm was evident: “It’s the best rye I’ve ever picked… I’ll stake my reputation on this one.” Now, David is a guy who does his fair share of bottle picks, which means he’s a practiced hand, but which in turn means that I’m not able to purchase every one of them. He’s also not prone to hyperbole, so when he starts raving about a bottle, my ears perk up.
In the end, I paid my money and I took my chance. I’ve done my best to evaluate this on its own merits… and what merits they are! This is a hell of a rye whiskey. I’m happy to have an open bottle to share and another bottle to open for rye loving friends, later on down the line. Doubt my review and score if you will; in the meantime, I’ll be enjoying this extraordinarily tasty whiskey.
Photos courtesy of David Jennings.