“Are we spoiled idiots?”
I asked this question to a few friends during my recent travels in Kentucky. We were on a whiskey trip that most enthusiasts could only dream of. Between rubbing elbows with master distillers, being treated to generous hospitality, and selecting barrels at some of the best-regarded distilleries in the country, we were living the American whiskey dream.
Any one of the events on our itinerary would have made for once-in-a-lifetime memories for the majority of whiskey fans, and we had three days packed full of them. Though our faces should have been plastered with smiles that would require plastic surgery to remove, I noticed a sense of ennui out-of-keeping with the extraordinary experiences we were having.
This isn’t to cast aspersions on my companions; I caught myself feeling tired or disinterested at times. A few of the barrel picks were ones I had done once before. While in no way objectively inferior to prior visits (and certainly not due to any faults of our extremely gracious hosts and hostesses), I didn’t always feel the excited anticipation that I had during my first times. I can only imagine how the others in the group – some of whom had been through these same selections a dozen or more times – were feeling.
Hence the question with which I opened this review. I was pleasantly surprised – and not a little bit relieved – when the answer to this query was unanimously “yes.” This is the pitfall of connoisseurship; if you’ve already been to the top of the mountain, other journeys – even returns to those lofty heights – can feel like let downs.
While this self-awareness is a good starting point, I don’t believe it’s enough to acknowledge that I am overindulged and then to continue on my miserable way. Some forced perspective, some grounding, is necessary to reorient myself and to reestablish a framework for moving forward on my whiskey journey.
Fortunately, I did not return to my own home, stocked as it is with personal favorites, the allocated bottlings I have been lucky to acquire, and the embarrassment of single barrel bottlings that I have amassed. Rather, I joined my family on our summer vacation, spending the subsequent month in a house bereft of any type of rare or coveted whiskey. My selection was limited to what could be procured from nearby grocery and liquor stores. I’ve been drinking Wild Turkey 101, not Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel selections.
For rye whiskey (the only type my better half enjoys), I could not dip into the seven year Wilderness Trail rye a friend generously found for me. I had to make do with a “shelfer,” so I chose the subject of today’s review: Rittenhouse Rye.
John most recently reviewed Rittenhouse rye in January of 2022, comparing it to the sister Pikesville ryeexpression from Heaven Hill’s stable of rye whiskeys (among them the most recent addition, Elijah Craig rye). All three share the “barely legal” mash bill of 51% rye, 35% corn, and 14% barley. So, what sets Rittenhouse apart from its in-house competition?
The most obvious area of difference is the “Bottled in Bond” designation, which guarantees a minimum age (at least four years) and potency (100 proof). Though lower in ABV than the 110 proof Pikesville bottling, this pips the Elijah Craig rye, which comes in at 94 proof. It’s also a bit cheaper than either of those, selling in the low-to-mid $20s, compared to the low $30s for Elijah Craig rye and $50 for the six-year-old Pikesville rye.
With respect to my preamble: I’m hoping that this “back-to-basics” approach will have re-calibrated both my palate and my attitude, in a way that makes me more grateful going forward. I’m not expecting this to be life changing. Nobody is going to read this review to determine whether this is a unicorn bottling, justifying a price tag well in excess of SRP. This is – and should be – rye whiskey for everyday enjoyment. Its comparatively meagre cost means that it can be used in a Manhattan or mixed with soda water and a twist of lemon without hesitation.
I am therefore approaching this as though I were once again at the beginning of my whiskey exploration. I’m not comparing it to the all-time greats in my personal whiskey hall of fame, those monolithic legends that I have had the good fortune to try (mostly due to the kindness of others) over the past few years. I’ll be evaluating this on its own merits, but also on its own terms: as a (hopefully) reasonably high-quality bargain rye to be recommended to novices and longtime enthusiasts alike. Here goes nothing…
Rittenhouse Rye – Review
Color: Golden orange.
On the nose: Despite this having the legal minimum rye content in the mash bill, I love how much of that grain’s characteristic nuances are expressed aromatically. Aloe, key lime pie, eucalyptus, menthol… all the rye hallmarks are here, married to a rich and buttery sweetness from the corn. This is on the young side, obviously, but that youth actually works in the whiskey’s favor, for my tastes. The grains are allowed to sing out individually, but also harmonize pleasantly. Not the deepest or most complex nose on a whiskey, but what is on display here is lovely.
In the mouth: This starts with a rounded, polished texture. This takes on a mild vanilla accent as it moves into the midpalate. There’s a momentarily young, grainy note here, but it disappears quickly as it emerges, bothering me very little. A faint note of green apple emerges in the middle of the mouth, reminiscent of rye whiskies from Barton. Tasted blind, that might have thrown me off the trail, however there’s also an astringent woodiness that provides a sharp counterpoint. This pivots quickly to a drying minerality that provides an inverted punctuation mark (¡) to the beginning of the finish. I taste a muted nuttiness and some green, herbal notes of rosemary and tarragon as the wood once again re-asserts itself. This tingles the tongue and the roof of the mouth long after the flavors have dissipated.
For as weary (and wary) a taster as my introduction might have cast me, this was a pleasant surprise. Far more than just passable rye whiskey at an attractive price, this was remarkably complete, with a good breadth of aromatic and flavor development. On the nose, particularly, I loved how rye-like the presentation was; I don’t always find that with other high-corn Kentucky style ryes.
Not only do I not regret purchasing this bottle, but I’ve resolved never to be without one on my home shelf. It punches well above its price, and for that I am adding a point to the score (in accordance with our guidelines), resulting in…
If you’re new enough to the world of whisky/whiskey that you’ve yet to become jaded and cynical: good for you; try to hold on to this feeling for as long as it lasts. If, like me, you’ve found yourself in a churlish and ungrateful frame of mind, I can attest to the fact that taking a break to reset your parameters can work wonders. If you’ve had a similar experience, please drop a comment below and tell us about it!
Lead image courtesy of Heaven Hill