The 2017 Rye Whiskey Podium

Jim Murray Whiskey Bible

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!

2016 Whiskey of the Year – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye 

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

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.

2017 Best Rye Whiskey Aged 10 Years or Less – Pikesville Rye 110 Proof 

Pikesville Straight Rye

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.

2017 Best No-Age Statement Rye – Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye 

Thomas H. Handy

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.

2017 Whiskey of the Year and Best Rye Whiskey Aged 11 Years or Over – Booker’s Rye Limited Edition (Aged 13 Years, 1 Month, 12 Days) 

Booker's Rye

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.

2 Replies to “The 2017 Rye Whiskey Podium”

  1. Some of my (Stephen Netherton) own observations:

    Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye:
    I find myself thinking this often with various bottles, but I would be interested to see a cask strength version of the Crown Rye. Come to think of it, I’d be interested to see a cask strength version of any Canadian rye. Here, the soft Canadian rye coupled with the lower proof yields a pleasant and welcoming result, but leaves me wanting more. This bottle is a nice gateway drug for those who have resisted whiskey, or even rye, due to apprehension for heat.

    Pikesville:
    A barely-legal rye, but with a respectable proof, this one delivers the spice that rye lovers are looking for without sacrificing the rest of the flavor palate. I especially like the caramel finish on this. Interestingly, aged the same length of time as the Thomas H. Handy. There must be some sort of magic that happens at that six year mark, as both ryes deliver deep color and strong flavors.

    Thomas H. Handy:
    For me, this is like Christmas Eve by the fire – close enough that you definitely feel the warmth, yet avoid being burned; baking spices and cinnamon coming through beautifully; and a long lingering finish that makes you want to stay there forever. The characteristics that come through after just 6 years (it says so on the letter accompanying the bottle – did Jim Murray miss this when he denominated it as “no-age statement”?) make we wonder what it is about rye that perhaps make it more amenable to shorter aging than bourbon.

    Booker’s Rye:
    For the heat not to overwhelm the rest of the palate at this proof is remarkable. I would love to know what the mash bill is, but then it would lose some of the mystique generated through declaring that the recipe died with Booker Noe. This one is worth the hype.

  2. I will add my observations as well (Stephen Benson):

    Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
    To be fair, I think it is important to admit that I have never been a fan of Crown Royal. I think it’s boring. Well, after tasting the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye my opinion has not changed. Don’t get me wrong…it’s not a bad whiskey…but it’s boring. Blase. Bland. I would put Dr. Pepper in this for the sake of tasting Dr. Pepper. This is not the whiskey of the year. It’s not even the sub-$25 whiskey of the year.

    Pikesville:
    Definitely some heat and spice up front. The finish is long and smooth. Add a little water and the you’ll experience the floral and fruit notes with definite spice undertones. This rye has character.

    Thomas H. Handy:
    Wow…mellow, soothing, and welcoming. It might even be difficult to determine this is a rye if you weren’t reading the label. Loving spices, gentle floral notes, and comforting caramel take you in and hold you tight. I was sad to take the last sip….I wanted more.

    Booker’s Rye:
    Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and take this in. Perfectly balanced by a master chef…a smidge of heat, a dash of spice, a bit of vanilla, and a helluva lot of magic…all perfectly combined. The finish is long and serves as an invitation to have more.

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