by Scott Hill
Last year, I purchased my first copy of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible. Many of you know it was a controversial year for Murray (more below). Notwithstanding and not limited to this controversy, I learned quickly that it is an interesting resource, but a “Bible” it is not. While there is some objectivity in the review of whiskey, the scale weighs heavy on subjectivity. So to Jim Murray, some of your beliefs I concur, some I do not, but to your insight, opinion and research I value.
This past weekend I sat down with friends to enjoy our first sips out of our newly acquired Booker’s Rye. Jim Murray calls it the “Whiskey of the Year,” and the best Rye Whiskey aged 11 years or over. To make this sampling even more interesting, we decided to break out a few other complementary bottles. It is no mere coincidence that those bottles selected just happen to be some of Jim Murray’s highest rated Rye whiskeys over the past two years!
Jim Murray’s 2016 most controversial pick. I want to hate it. And I want to hate Jim Murray for it. But I don’t. While I wholeheartedly disagree with his 2016 conclusion that it deserved “Whiskey of the Year”, I do understand how different it truly is. It is so incredibly mellow that it has the ability to take rye whiskeys to the masses. Overall, for me, it has the taste and feel of a typical mellow Crown Royal product, with a nice soft wood and fruit forward nose and entry, good balance, and subtle finish. I get very little spice, although just enough to identify it as a rye. For a 90% rye product, it is quite exceptional how mellow it can be.
Murray has rated this Rye very highly the past two years. And for good reason. While this Rye from Heaven Hill is as conventional as they come, it takes that convention to new heights. The nose reveals spice, wood notes, and some sweetness. The palate shows more pepper spice and wood notes that carry through to the finish. Inter-disbursed are notes of vanilla, citrus, and herbs. This spice is perfectly balanced. It is complex. It is everything a Rye should strive to be and more. I can’t think of a better example of traditional Rye than this.
Take whatever I said on the Pikesville about tradition and turn it upside down. This is not what Rye is supposed to be. Rye is supposed to be heavy on the spice, earthy, and bold. It isn’t supposed to be fruity, sweet and tame. Enter Thomas H. Handy, which takes those contradictions and combines them beautifully and uniquely. At 126 proof, this Rye takes ordinary “Baby Sazerac” Rye and condenses the flavors to one of the most delectable and unique whiskeys I’ve ever sampled, with absolutely no bite from the high proof. The dark sweetness combines with the rye spice (it is there but soooo well balanced) from the nose to the finish. Oh, and did I mention the bright copper color? Wow.
First and foremost — amazing. Jim Murray (along with just about everyone else who has tried this) did not get this one wrong. And neither did Booker Noe, the late Jim Beam Distiller that created it. From the outset, you get traditional rye spices complemented elegantly with dark fruit and sweetness. On the palate, you get delicious wood notes along with those same nose qualities. These continue through to the finish (in an ebb-and-flow kind of way), where they met with the unmistakable hallmark of Jim Beam (the “funk”). This is so incredibly rich with flavor and balanced. And perfectly aged, with the most wonderful oakiness throughout. Incredible.