Rye whiskey is back!
For those not familiar, rye whiskey is essentially a lower corn, higher rye version of a standard bourbon. It is defined in the United States much like bourbon as a whiskey distilled at not higher than 160 proof and aged in charred new oak containers at not more than 125 proof, but rye whiskey must be distilled with no less than 51% rye grain. Bourbon, by contrast, must contain at least 51% corn. Both rye whiskey and bourbon may contain additional grains to make up the balance of the recipe, but most use rye and corn in varying amounts, with a slight amount of barley for ease of fermentation. Some whiskeys use wheat instead of rye, or even other grains.
The difference then between rye and most bourbons is simply the ratios of corn to rye. What does that matter? Well, corn is typically credited with providing the sweetness to a bourbon or whiskey, while rye is typically credited with providing spice and herbal flavors.
Rye whiskey was a pre-prohibition favorite among many Americans. But through and following prohibition, many distilleries closed their doors for good. Among the major casualties was rye whiskey labels. No one is quite sure why post-prohibition favored bourbon over rye – maybe it was a change in taste, maybe it was caused by changes in production strategies as distilleries reopened or ramped up production following prohibition. Without question, the net result was rye whiskeys were nearly forgotten about.
While there was some resurgence in the past three or so decades, rye whiskey has only recently seen a dramatic uptick. Since 2009, the number of cases of rye whiskey has increased by 778%, from only 88,000 cases in all of 2009 (barely a million bottles world-wide in a year) to almost 775,000 cases in 2016. Revenues have increased even more dramatically. And 2017 and 2018 look to show additional growth.
Jim Beam brands continue to push the market with rye whiskeys. We have previously reviewed Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye, the recently released Old Overholt Bonded Rye, the standard Old Overholt Rye, as well as the top world whiskey from 2016, Booker’s Rye. Beam also produces Ri whiskey, a lower cost rye, and Knob Creek Small Batch Rye (reviewed below, and introduced in 2012). Flight Club recently helped Tom’s Wine & Spirits select a single barrel Knob Creek Rye – another new product for Beam offered at 115 proof – that we will review later this summer.
Beam has now released its highest end (save the one-off Booker’s Rye) rye to date – the Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye. Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye is a 9 year 119.6 proof cask strength blend, barrel exclusively from Warehouse A, Beam’s oldest standing rick house built in 1915. Jim Beam does not release the recipe for this whiskey, but most believe this and the other Knob Creek Rye releases to be “barely legal” ryes, meaning that it likely has very close to the minimum 51% rye needed to be classified as a rye, the result of which is a less spicy and sweeter version of a rye whiskey.
What is special about Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye? Beam says its a limited release, although it hasn’t disclosed quantities or indicated whether it will be a continuous or repeated release. It is aged 9 years, longer than many ryes on the market today, and older than Beam’s other continuous release rye products. It is priced at $70, which is a relative bargain compared to the Knob Creek 2001 and 25th Anniversary Bourbons released over the past two years. But more than those details, this release, along with the Knob Creek’s recent introduction of the Single Barrel Rye, marks what we view as the largest rye whiskey movement of any of the major American distillers. Beam is telling us all that rye whiskey is back!
On this first day of the release of Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye to our Wichita market, I sat down with it and a standard Knob Creek Small Batch Rye for this review.
Knob Creek Small Batch Rye (100 Proof) (NAS)
Nose: A spectrum of caramelized sugar notes, ranging from just beyond a simple syrup, to a light brown sugar, to caramel to faint butterscotch candy; vanilla; baking spice (nutmeg and light clove); rye bread; very faint chocolate; subtle herbs (primarily mint); melon and cherry fruit; youthful oak that teeters between green oak and cardboard. Complex notes, but overall the nose seems to hit that no-man’s-land between assertive/spicy/herbal young rye and tamed, mellow aged rye. (2.5/5)
Palate: Assertive on the tongue, with rye spice and slightly astringent oak; salt and pepper; vanilla; baking spice; very faint leather; chocolate; apple crisp; berries and raisin; peanut. Tasty. (3.5/5)
Finish: Medium. Caramel and chocolate; vanilla; oak; baking spice; apple crisp and dark fruit; lingering dry oak and Jim Beam nuttiness. (3/5)
Overall: Knob Creek Small Batch Rye is a solid, enjoyable rye. While the nose fell just below “satisfying” and the palate slightly above, the end result is just an all around satisfying whiskey. (3/5)
Value: Good rye at a fair price – MSRP is around $30-$35, but I picked it up for $27. (4/5)
“Knob Creek Small Batch Rye is a solid, enjoyable rye.”
Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye (119.6 Proof) (9 Years)
Nose: Butterscotch; toffee; dry oak; leather; cola; mint, dill and rye spice; baking spice; butter; milk chocolate; overripe melon and stone fruit; light citrus; raisin and other dried fruit. Shockingly gentle for 119.6 proof – maybe too gentle. (3.5/5)
Palate: Salted caramel; butterscotch; leather; rich dried fruit (raisins, fig and dried cherries); hot pepper; rich baking spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, light clove); menthol. Fairly sweet, yet deliciously spicy. This elevates to a 4 on our scale (full rating rubric below), but just barely. (4/5)
Finish: Medium-long and chewy; caramel; chocolate; peanut; raisin; dried stone fruit (apricot and peach) and apple crisp. This fades subtly leaving a slightly chocolaty coating on your mouth. (3.5/5)
Overall: Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye Whiskey is darn good, but it is not “great.” From start to finish, this whiskey enjoyably balances sweetness and spice, leaning more towards the sweetness as a barely legal rye. In some ways I wish it were more assertive – either on spice or on age. I am certainly more than satisfied, but yet I still want more (for what it is worth, I can see some fantastic single barrels coming out of a 9 year Knob Creek Rye that would blow away this batched whiskey). (3.5/5)
Value: Setting aside Beam’s “limited edition claim” and looking at the true value of $70 for this bottle, I’m left feeling just a hair less than satisfied. Given the quality of Knob Creek Small Batch Rye at $30, I don’t feel this warrants more than $60. That is just slightly below MSRP. But kudos to Beam for not following the 2001 and 25th Anniversary Knob Creek Bourbon pricing. (2.5/5)
“Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye Whiskey is darn good, but it is not great. From start to finish, this whiskey enjoyably balances sweetness and spice, leaning more towards the sweetness as a barely legal rye.”
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.