High Proof Rye Blind Tasting

Willett, Col. E.H. Taylor Straight Rye, Pikesville Straight Rye, Thomas H. Handy

I recently acquired (shout out to Chris Crow) my first bottle of Willett Straight Rye – a recently released 3-year cask strength (111.2 proof) bottle. It actually features a blend of Willett’s high-rye mashbill (74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley) and its low-rye mashbill (51% rye, 34% corn, 15% malted barley).

This particular bottle interested me because it is the first rye batch that Willett has distilled since the early 1980’s. Between the 1980’s and 2012, Willett functioned as a non-distilling producer, aging and releasing bourbon and rye that many believe was sourced from Heaven Hill (which is about a half mile down the street in Bardstown, Kentucky).

To aid in my introduction to Willett rye, about a week after sampling the bottle, I decided I should compare it to some other high-proof ryes. So, I selected three others: Pikesville Straight Rye (110-proof, reviewed here and here), Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye (100-proof, reviewed here), and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye (126.2-proof, reviewed here and here).

To further enhance the experience, I also decided to arrange them blind. Below are my notes, guesses, and then the reveal:

Bottle 1: 

Nose: soft rye spice, oak, caramel, ethanol

Palate: big rye spice immediately hits much more strongly than the nose indicated, followed by charred oak, thick mouthfeel with an underlying sweetness.

Finish: long, lingering, mouth-coating rye and pepper spice with subtle sweetness.

Guess: I think this is either the Pikesville or Colonel E.H. Taylor. It has been a while since I’ve sampled either. Because I know the E.H. Taylor’s mash bill has no corn and only contains rye and malted barley, and because of the ethanol on the nose and heat on the palate, I’m going to guess Pikesville for now.

Bottle 2: 

Nose: soft rye similar to the first, followed by dill, anise, and young oak.

Palate: dill, salted buttery smoothness, young oak, and mint with some citrus.

Finish: Oily rye spice, medium length.

Guess: I think it is the Willett. The dill/herbal note is the dead giveaway. Though dill is often a note for many ryes (due to their likely sourcing from MGP), I do not recall its presence in the Pikesville, E.H. Taylor, or Thomas H. Handy. The young wood also makes me lean towards Willett, as it is the youngest of the four (the E.H. Taylor being the closest, as it is at least 4 years old, due to carrying the “bottled-in-bond” label).

Bottle 3: 

Nose: softest nose so far, oak, ethanol, straw.

Palate: sweetness leads followed by mellow rye, clover, mint, and cocoa.

Finish: much more dry than the previous two, but long, and the rye is most evident here.

Guess: I think this is the E.H. Taylor. First, because it seemed to be a slightly lower proof than bottles 1 and 2. Second, the lack of corn in the mashbill probably accounts for the dryer finish. Although, the sweetness on the palate gives me some doubt. But, then again, that could be attributable to the fact that all Buffalo Trace products seem to carry a sweet profile.

Bottle 4: 

Nose: big rye spice, cinnamon, and oak.

Palate: full, deep flavors of cinnamon, rye, and sweet dark chocolate. Wonderful.

Finish: very long, sweet rye spice and vanilla. I wish every whiskey finished this way.

Guess: Has to be the Thomas H. Handy. It would be difficult to mistake this bottle, which is probably one of my top 3 all time favorites. If I’m wrong here, I will be shocked.


Bottle 1: Pikesville Straight Rye

Bottle 2: Willett Straight Rye

Bottle 3: Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye

Bottle 4: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye

These bottles are all quite unique from one another, so there should be no particular pride in correctly identifying them. What the exercise does accomplish, more importantly, is properly identifying taste preferences. One can be easily swayed by a bottle’s label or reputation. When your senses are the only factor, you can learn a lot about what you truly prefer.

My favorite remains the Thomas H. Handy. It is everything I want in a whiskey. Its only flaw is its scarcity. Next is Pikesville. I’m a sucker for big, bold flavors and Pikesville punches above its 110-proof and delivers. I like Willett and E.H. Taylor, but cannot say I strongly prefer one over the other. I will keep an eye out for future Willett releases to see whether extra aging enhances the flavor profile.

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