Is this going to be the greatest whiskey of all time?
Not based on appearances, but there’s an old saying about that. However, we don’t have to rely on threadbare clichés when there are also ample examples provided to us all the time by the real world. If you’ll permit me some seemingly unrelated musings, I promise I’ll bring it all back to the bottle at hand.
The world of sports is full of heartening tales of underdogs who proved the naysayers wrong. Short kids, scrawny kids, husky kids, and poor kids have all defied expectations in order to achieve greatness in their particular areas of endeavor. For some (like my hometown’s beloved Michael Jordan, but also local villain Aaron Rodgers) their early detractors are a perpetual source of motivation, long after their voices have faded and their names have been forgotten.
Let’s consider Tom Brady. The sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft came out of Michigan which (pace my wife, herself a diehard Wolverine) had not historically been a source of professional QB star power. He had a couple of Bowl wins under his belt, but an underwhelming showing at the combine bumped his stock down. Speaking of judging by appearances, take a look at that bod:
As we now know, Brady became the closest thing to an undisputable G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time, for those who don’t spend their time arguing about sports) at the quarterback position. Seven Super Bowl rings, 3 MVP awards, and countless passing records later, he’s got a resumé that is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.
Why all the love lavished on TB12? It’s not based on any personal fondness for the guy, but rather because his likeness graces the sticker (definitely not authorized) that adorns this bottle. More on that in a minute, but first I’d like to talk about whiskey:
One of the fun parts of exploring whiskey is having one’s preconceptions refuted. The thrill of a sleeper expression turning out to be a life-changer is the type of alchemy which keeps whiskey geeks straying into unfamiliar territory, in the hopes of a revelation. Like the Pats picking up an unheralded backup in the later rounds of the draft, pulling the cork on a new bottle offers the prospect of outsized rewards for an open-minded drinker.
Why do I think this whiskey might be the G.O.A.T.? Because it says so on the sticker:
Seriously, though, I’m not actually holding out any hope that this will be the best whiskey I have ever tasted. Firstly, we’re dealing with a WhistlePig rye, which means that it’s sourced from either MGP or Alberta. I’m not knocking either of those distilleries, but I’ve never had product from either that approached the top of my personal league table.
On the positive side, the “Aged 10 Years” statement on the bottle is a red herring, according to the retailer who sold this to me. Reportedly, this is actually an 18 year old rye (as stated on the sticker), however he said WhistlePig only bottled barrel picks under their 10 year label. A quick perusal of the internet reveals 15 year barrel picks (Estate Oak Rye) floating around out there. I’m going to take the merchant’s word for this one, having no reason to suspect him of mendacity. As Tom Brady proves every Sunday, age ain’t nothing but a number, after all.
Final specifics before I taste: this is straight rye whiskey from barrel #19111, picked by Bell’s 104/Brown Water Social Club. It was matured in warehouse 3, rick E, level 1. Bottled at 103 proof (53% ABV), it’s a 10-year rye per the label but an 18 year rye per the sticker, as mentioned above. This set me back about $100, which is the price I will be using for our price-sensitive scoring framework.
WhistlePig Rye Single Barrel 19111 – Review
Color: Medium-light golden brown.
On the nose: A straight jab of fruit punches me in the nose immediately. It’s overwhelming in a good way, but also makes me want to take a step back to recalibrate. After a minute or so, and a whiff of black coffee, I once again approach the glass, this time more tentatively. Trying to pick apart that intense fruit note, it’s equal parts brandied cherries and a very ripe lemon. Just beneath this is a very assertive and well-delineated rye note comprised of characteristic aromas such as oily citrus peel, aloe, and steel. This somehow turns into more of a candied orange peel nuance. Underlying this all is a subtle foundation of oaky vanilla. More time reveals spicy aromas of nutmeg and lemongrass.
Based on the nose alone, this is a candidate for greatness. Let’s see if the mouth can follow through?
In the mouth: Pleasantly round to start, this has the harder edges of the rye softened in the front of the mouth by creamy vanilla and pertly fruity flavors. The middle of the mouth is pure sweetness of a very specific form: fruity hard candies, of the type that comprise Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). This pivots by way of the flavor of polished wood into the finish, where the wood takes on a more astringent, tannic aspect. It’s not quite bitter or mouth-puckering, but it represents a departure from the presentation heretofore, which has tended toward the more generous side. Those rye notes reemerge as an echo, but this essentially disappears through the finish, leaving only a faint residual heat as a memento of its presence.
This is the most disappointing type of progression for a whiskey, in my opinion. An impressive start on the nose, followed by initial charms in the mouth, all dwindling into silence as the whiskey moves through the finish. The palate delivers a very pale imitation of the nose’s extraordinarily intense fruitiness, while the texture of this – particularly at the end – feels like this is well short of what should have been a completely adequate bottling strength.
I’m guessing this is from Alberta (rather than MGP) based on the profile. With the Alberta Premium Cask Strength rye going for $60 to $70 around me, those looking for a full proof experience from this distillery can do better for the price. In total: it’s not bad rye; in fact, it’s pretty good rye, but with a hefty price tag and some noticeable shortcomings. All in, I feel like a score in the middle of the range is warranted.
Much in the way that Tom Brady doesn’t have to worry about any current contenders to take away his G.O.A.T. title, the better rye whiskies I have enjoyed are not in danger of being usurped by this one. It does feel like there may be an uncomfortable analogue in a different way, with the fade into a disappointing finish reminiscent of the lackluster final seasons of a gunslinger who should have hung it up at his peak (I’m looking at you, Brett Favre).
However, hope springs eternal, in whiskey as in football. If Brady can overcome the simultaneous collapse of his marriage and the crypto exchange he shills for in order to secure another championship ring, maybe I can find the Tom Brady of whiskies hidden among a sea of store picks. Watch this space…