High West 21-year old Rocky Mountain Rye
Color in glencairn glass: Pale brown – yellowish.
Nose: Large, deep vanilla, moist sweet bread, lemon meringue, vanilla frosted cupcake.
Taste: A strong spice shows up on the entry and quickly disperses, falling to the sides on the palate to make way for a creamy, custardy middle. The spice sticks around on the finish, bringing heat and a light herbal presence. The spice has a hot, bouyant bitterness that compliments the wet cake quality I find at the center of this whiskey.
At the back of the throat lies an almost untouched, pure rye grain cereal note. The whiskey is viscous and coats the mouth with cinnamon spice and sweet vanilla. Very, very light fruity notes emerge from the dense wetness of the sweet cake after a time in the glass.
Strictly speaking, this is not a rye whiskey. It is, as the label specifies, “whiskey distilled from rye mash stored 21 years in reused cooperage.” In order for most American-made spirits to qualify as whiskey (rye whiskey, bourbon whiskey, malt whiskey, etc), they must be aged in new oak barrels. With a typical rye whiskey mashbill of 53% rye, 37% corn and 10% barley malt, this is a rye whiskey in every respect but that it was aged in reused cooperage. Just as High West’s (HW) 16-year old Rocky Mountain Rye was distilled at the Barton distillery, intended to be sold and blended into Canadian whisky, so goes this very unusual rye. I know of no other American-distilled whiskey that has spent so much time in used barrels. Some new distilleries use previously used barrels to briefly age their distillate, but these experiments are a long way off from producing something like the juice that fills these bottles.
Across the pond, the scotch industry has been using reused barrels for centuries, mostly American barrels that previously aged bourbon. The effect of aging whiskey in weathered wood is profound. Whereas American spirits are very rarely aged for more than 20 years, Scottish distilleries age their malt for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Because climate plays such a big part in affecting the speed at which whiskey interacts with temperature-sensitive, breathable wood, Scotland’s more uniformly temperate climate can allow for longer aging periods than the more variable and extreme climate of Kentucky. This 21-year old rye, however, exhibits very little of the oaky flavors most American whiskeys aged for so long usually show. It draws a distinct contrast with more traditionally aged American whiskey, and makes me wonder what kind of transformations could be possible by aging traditional American grains in used cooperage for longer periods of time.
While not as complex in dark flavors as the like-aged Sazerac 18-year old rye, this whiskey is a delicious, dessert-y lesson in alternative barrel aging. I would love to see American distillers experiment with ultra-aging in used barrels. There are great opportunities to create new American whiskey profiles by sacrificing the initial, dramatic flavors that new wood imparts on a distillate. Don’t get me wrong, I love bourbon and rye whiskey, but I do feel that slow-aged malt can reach heights of maturity in old age that simply aren’t possible over the same period of time in new barrels. The strict guidelines surrounding whiskey in this country demands a discipline that produces world class whiskeys, but I would anticipate more good than harm in coloring outside of the box.