How low can you go?
am not talking about plumbing the depths of quality in whiskey… at least I hope not, having not yet tried the bottle featured in today’s review. Rather, I’m asking how much the price of a bottle needs to be cut before enticing an otherwise skeptical buyer.
Would 58% off make you reach for your wallet? That’s the percentage discount from list price at which I noticed this bottle on the clearance rack. Perhaps that’s the wrong question to be asking, however. After all, you could cut 58% off the price of a $10,000 whiskey, and I’m not sure there would be many takers. It’s a rare, well-heeled whiskey buyer that will ever spend $1,000 on a bottle; multiply that by four or more, and the numbers likely dwindle further.
Instead, let me rephrase the question: what’s a price – in absolute terms – at which you’d feel comfortable taking a flier on a new bottle? How about $50? Seems reasonable to me, depending on the source of the whiskey in question and the specs. Fortunately, we have a bit of information on this bottle that might permit an informed assessment.
This is an unconventional whiskey by American standards: rye from large distillery known for the quantity (if not the quality) of its output, blended with rye from a different mash bill – and produced using a different still type – from a smaller craft distillery that has quickly gained a reputation for excellence. I’m talking, respectively, about Tullahoma, Tennessee’s Cascade Hollow Distillery (producer of the George Dickel family of whiskies) collaborating with Denver’s Leopold Bros.
Dickel seems to have taken the lead in marketing and distributing this one (not a surprise, given parent Diageo’s footprint compared to that of a craft distillery); the first Google search result takes you to Dickel’s own site for this expression.
Let’s disaggregate the component bits. Initially, I thought the Dickel rye isn’t actually Dickel rye, in the sense of being distilled at Cascade Hollow. The reported Dickel rye mash bill (95% rye, with 5% malted barley) is the tell, here. This is a signature rye recipe of Indiana’s MGP, from which Dickel sources its rye whiskey (or did). As an interesting aside: The Whiskey Ramble informs me that Dickel uses the Lincoln County Process on this MGP rye.
So, what would a common customer typically expect to pay for this Indiana rye with a Tennessee accent? At the same store where I procured this bottle, Dickel’s standard rye (90 proof/45% ABV) goes for $26. That’s quite a bit lower than the suggested price of this bottle; more on that in a minute.
There’s a wrinkle, though: an eagle-eyed reader pointed out that Dickel has started distilling its own rye, per the press release for this expression. I’m grateful for the correction, and can therefore adjust my expectations somewhat.
As for the Leopold Bros piece: I have heard a lot of positive word-of-mouth reviews about their whiskey – particularly their Three Chamber Rye – but have yet to taste any myself. John was very keen on their Bottled-in-Bond bourbon when he tried it back in 2002. The Three Chamber rye fetches a pretty penny; the 2022 Holiday Edition has a $200 asking price near me, and you can pay an extra $50 for a “Signed Collector’s Edition” of this expression.
What makes this rye special enough to command such a premium? Leopold Bros’ own site for the expression provides us this information:
Leopold Bros. painstakingly re-engineered a Three Chamber Still from old manuscripts and grew the heritage grain Abruzzi rye that was favored by Pre-Prohibition distillers to resurrect this one-of-a-kind whiskey.
It’s exactly what craft distillers should be doing, in my opinion: using unique still types and heritage grain varietals to produce a whiskey that is distinct from those being produced in greater quantities (and, relatedly, cheaper) by the bigger distillers. It’s one of the only legitimate justifications, to me, for the high prices (compared to other whiskeys) that craft distillers often charge. For whatever it’s worth, the 2022 release was said to be from barrels that are “at least 5 years old,” though we have no such guarantee regarding the components of this blend. The mash bill is widely reported as 80% Abruzzi rye, 20% malted barley (from Leopold Bros’ own floor malting).
But, we’re not getting the unadulterated product here. We don’t even know the proportions of the Dickel and Leopold Bros whiskeys in the blend. Working backwards from the respective retail prices (perhaps not fairly to Dickel, as this is their own distillate, not MGP), I derive the equation 120 = 200x + 26(1-x). Using my high school algebra skills to solve for x (thanks, Mrs. Kritzberg!) I get approximately 54% Leopold Bros, 46% Dickel. Whether these are, in fact, the true proportions (Leopold Bros’ limited output and my own cynicism would suggest they aren’t) will have to remain a subject of speculation, as no such information has been provided about this release.
Stepping back a second: I’ve given you the “what,” but not the “why,” Why does this blend exist? What does it hope to accomplish? Well, column stills (of the type used by Dickel for their piece) produce a lighter, less flavorful spirit. By contrast, distilling on the type of three chamber still Leopold Bros have reconstructed results in a heavier, fuller-bodied spirit. The aspiration, best I can tell, is to marry the two styles to produce a style that is better than the sum of its parts. Will this experiment be a success? It remains to be seen, though I hope to provide you an answer shortly.
Another outstanding question: how ought I score this, with respect to our price-sensitive scoring bands? I’m going to use the $50 I paid as my reference price, but will add a note at the end about whether I’d be happy to pay the original ask. A final detail: this comes to us at 100 proof (50% ABV).
George Dickel x Leopold Bros Collaboration Blend – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: Rich rye notes, of a type that make this immediately alluring. There’s the steely, hard edge of the grain, with a round and plump herbaceous note sitting firmly in the middle of the nose. Think eucalyptus or menthol, but of the most complete, spherical, polished variety. There are some sweet notes swirling around the periphery, in ephemeral form; cotton candy disappears and is soon replaced by the cellophane-wrapped strawberry hard candies that every grandmother has in a crystal bowl. I get a slightly odd whiff of latex bandage in here, though this yields to an altogether more pleasant scent of pine bough.
In the mouth: Starts with an effervescent texture and a unique flavor profile, one that takes me quite a bit of time to pin down. There’s a mild woody accent here, a handful of spices of undetermined variety, and a reprise of the nose’s eucalpytus note. That strawberry candy note reemerges for a second as this transitions to the middle of the mouth. There, this has a medicinal intensity from both a flavor and a texture perspective; if you imagine the syrupy, overwhelming taste of Robitussin or NyQuil cough syrup, you’re probably close. This dies down from a flavor perspective into the finish; the sensations are mostly textural past the midpalate, with some more effervescence augmented by a slowly growing heat that makes this feel a bit punchier than 50% ABV. This fades fast, however, leaving a weak and slightly stale woody final impression, along with an uncomfortable return of that uncanny latex flavor.
Not a rye for all palates by any measure, but what this lacks in mainstream appeal (and, indeed, balance in many places) it mostly makes up for in some very intriguing aromas and flavors. Those who like their ryes forceful will be delighted by the nose, at least. The odd birds in the crowd who didn’t need a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down may feel a pleasant nostalgia when the cough syrup notes really hit in the center of the tongue.
That said, it’s not a whiskey that has me reaching for another glass. I’ll probably use the rest of this bottle for Manhattans and other cocktails; if any of my rye-loving friends get curious, I’d also be happy to share a sample with them. At the sale price, I’m calling this even and awarding a score at the midpoint of the range.
So, what would I have scored this if I had ponied up the original $120 ask for a bottle? That’s a hell of a lot of money for a bottle of rye, given the dozens of competing options on the shelf from both established and craft distilleries. I’d probably knock the score down to 4/10 on a day when I was feeling cheerful; catch me in a grumpy mood, and you might be looking at a 3/10. Either way, I’d strongly dissuade anyone from paying much more than I did for this. If you’re an incorrigible bargain hunter, though, you might want to act while supplies last.