I’ll admit it: my attention drifted.
Can you blame me? Since my first taste of Driftless Glen bourbon, I have held the distillery in high esteem, and looked forward to trying more of what they had to offer. However, there has also been a tidal wave of barrel picks from craft distilleries of all types during that time. Keeping up with them all would be a full-time occupation, and I’ve already got one of those. Limited hours in the day (not to mention money in my wallet and liver capacity) often prevent me from revisiting even those producers that have left a positive impression.
Looking back on my bourbon review is also a reminder to me of how much things have changed in the intervening three and a half years… and what a three and a half years they have been, in the sense of human history as well as whiskey.
Restricting my commentary to the latter: the crop of craft distilleries that started up in the early part of the millennium have matured, and so has their whiskey. Age have statements crept upwards as more and more barrels become ready for bottling; the two-and-change-year-old picks from small barrels (like that Driftless Glen bourbon) morphed into solid mid-to-high-single-digit offerings.
On the demand side: drinkers want more whiskey, both from established brands as well as newcomers, and the craft producers are happy to fill the gaps left by the big boys. There’s also more room for experimentation; novel aromas and flavors can come from off-profile barrels, but can also be injected by use of a finishing barrel, which is gaining wider acceptance in America.
Finally, I wouldn’t have earned my whiskey reviewing stripes if I didn’t carp about price. Whereas experimenting with a craft barrel pick in 2018 might have run me $40 to $60 (what I then considered a reasonable risk), it’s increasingly rare to see one of these bottles at less than $50 now. Don’t blame craft distilleries, though; prices have moved in tandem with those for single barrels from the larger Kentucky whiskey distilleries, which are now harder to find and more expensive when you do.
I lay all this out to contextualize the current moment in my whiskey journey, as well as to give our readers a chance to gauge how jaded I may or may not have become. Will my positive perception of Driftless Glen have persisted through all the whiskey world’s subsequent ups and downs?
I’ve got the opportunity to find out today courtesy of Ryan A, who continues to kindly lavish samples on me. His most recent care package included a pair of Driftless Glen rye barrel picks, which will be the subject of today’s review. I’m excited to revisit this distillery and am also happy that these picks come from a trio of selectors with excellent reputations.
The first was picked by my friend David Jennings, aka Rare Bird 101. Those of you who are Patreon supporters of Rare Bird 101 can read all about the pick on his Patreon page. The specifics, for those unable to access the post: this is barrel #1881 (30 gallons), aged five years and 280 days (when sampled). It was bottled at 122 proof (61% ABV) and sold for a price of $69.
Driftless Glen Straight Rye Single Barrel “Strawberry Jam” – Review
Color: Golden orange-brown.
On the nose: Indeed, there’s a pronounced fruitiness to this as it leaps from the glass, but (to me) it’s less redolent of strawberries than it is of young Bordeaux wine, with the red fruit playing against creamy oak and spice from the barrel. Beneath that, there is indeed a rye character to this, one that emerges more forcefully as the whiskey is allowed to sit longer in the glass. It takes on a rich sugary note of sticky toffee pudding as I sniff at it more.
In the mouth: This has an initial pause just past the lips before the flavor kicks in potently. At first, there’s a subtle molasses sweetness to this. As it moves up the tongue, the intensity ratchets up significantly, with the flavors being mostly very pure rye grain meeting a firm oak note. This is at its most interesting right in the middle of the tongue, where all this resolves into a flavor and texture that are both deliciously creamy. Moving into the finish, a grainy rye texture reemerges, carrying this down the back of the tongue and into the throat. This quiets down fairly abruptly; the lingering green, stalky flavor often associated with younger rye whiskey creeps around the cheeks, gums and tongue as a faint but persistent aftertaste.
I’m happy to report that this is good rye whiskey; that said, I’ll go ahead and pick a few nits. The nose has a lot of notes to like, but they don’t all mesh together harmoniously for me. Though I know it isn’t the case, it feels as though this is a wine barrel finished whiskey, with the underlying rye being overwhelmed with the fruit and oak from the finishing barrel. Though there’s fruit on the palate, it doesn’t follow through fully on the exuberance of the nose. The final drawback is the finish; I would have liked to see the flavors carry on with more intensity and length.
Offsetting all this is the fact that the fruit notes, considered in isolation, are magnificent. If you love rye whiskey and are looking for something different – and enjoy the occasional flamboyantly fruity note in your glass – I can recommend trying this rye on for size. On net, a positive score from me.
The second rye pick comes to us from the Bourbon Pursuit team, perhaps better known to Malt readers as the pair behind the Pursuit United bourbon and rye blends. This was chosen by Ryan and Kenny along with two of their friends; you can watch a video of the selection process on the Keg N Bottle website, where this pick is still available (at the time of writing) for $70. That’s the price I’ll be using to evaluate this on Malt’s price sensitive scoring framework. Final details: this is barrel 783, aged 5 years, 293 days, coming to us at 120 Proof (60% ABV).
Driftless Glen Straight Rye Single Barrel “Rye Time”- Review
Color: Similar medium golden-orange.
On the nose: More stern than its predecessor to start, this leans heavily into classic rye notes of aloe vera initially. There’s a fruitiness to this as well, albeit of a completely different variety; I get abundant overripe orchard fruit (apples, pears), stewed and accented with cinnamon, almost in the manner of a pie or tart. This is augmented by the baked sweetness of graham crackers. Served blind, I would almost have guessed this was a rye with a Calvados cask finish, so sumptuous and ample are those fruit notes. More time in the glass releases an uncanny aroma of melted Velveeta cheese; I’m here for it, having been raised on the stuff.
In the mouth: This begins similarly to the Strawberry Jam barrel, in that the flavors take a bit of initial coaxing to emerge. Unlike Strawberry Jam, once they do emerge they’re of a more sedate and less exuberant character. This has a bit of that fruitiness and a rounded texture as it moves up the tongue. In the middle of the mouth, this goes full-bore rye in terms of both flavor and texture; I get a warm and slightly astringent greenness that chases away the sweet cinnamon note, an evolution I find disappointing. Once again, the whiskey fades into the finish; I get a momentary resurgence of polished wood before this disappears, leaving a residual heat but without much lingering flavor.
This is a middle-of-the-road rye whiskey for me. The nose held the promise of a different – but potentially equally delectable – treat, relative to “Strawberry Jam.” However, I was once again disappointed that little of that delicious fruit was evident on the mouth, which tacked toward more conventional rye flavors. I’m also a little let down by the finish, even more so than with the prior whiskey. Again, decent enough quality, albeit at a premium price, even considering the expected and justified upcharge for a true “craft” producer. Trying to be as fair as possible, I’m left feeling like this is bang average in terms of quality for value, hence…
As I foreshadowed in the introduction, there is a veritable tsunami of barrel picks coming to us from both public retailers and private clubs. Taking up just half my allocation from my own group – as well as occasionally supporting friends like David – would find me purchasing way more bottles than I would typically need each year.
The whiskey world will continue to change and evolve in the next few years, and I’m sure that barrel picks will do likewise. As consumers become more discerning (and, frankly, are burned too many times by undistinguished picks pushed by hapless retailers), it’s possible that demand will drop from current levels. I hold out hope that the next generation of barrel picks will be less numerous but also higher in quality, offering truly differentiated drinking experiences in exchange for the cost and hassle of securing them. Whatever may come our way, I’ll do my part by evaluating it objectively it and sharing my unvarnished thoughts.
Photos courtesy of Rare Bird 101 and Keg N Bottle.