Spirit Smack Down: Rye Whiskey

Rye Comparison_2
With the shortage of the past years finally over more and more Rye Whiskey is becoming available. However, that leaves you with a problem: which one is best?

To answer that question, I choose three contenders that should compete in a Rye Whiskey smack down, although admittedly I am not the first one to do such a test.

As it was clear to me that I could not do this test alone, I invited some friends to help me out with this strenuous task. Luckily I did not have to do much persuasion work to win them over. The rules were pretty simple: The Whiskeys would have to stand up to a few tests and in the end there would be a winner. Of course we would have to try them neat, but who really enjoys it that way? So I decided the contestants would have to master three drinks, too. Poor guys…

My choice fell on the Bulleit Rye, Knob Creek Rye and Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond. While the first and the last ones where the obvious choices, because they are in a similar price range, the Knob Creek is rather expensive here in Germany. But, since a lot of my readers are from the United States and I happened to have a bottle at hand I decided to include it anyway.

Another hard decision I had to face were the drinks for the test. They should represent the main areas of application of Rye whiskey, while not being the usual boring stuff, like a Rye sour. The only thing I was sure was that one of the drinks had to be a Manhattan. It’s the most famous Rye Whiskey cocktail, it’s a classic and one of my favorites.

One drink also had to be kind of a sour, but a bit more sophistication would be nice, I thought. So at first I tried the Oriental, a mix of Rye, sweet vermouth, orange curacao and lime juice. While being not a bad drink, it was a bit unbalanced in my opinion. I also think that lemon works way better with Rye than lime, or whisky in general for that matter. After a little while I consulted my PDT Cocktail book and the drink that seemed to fit the profile was the Ward Eight. It’s basically a Rye sour with the addition of orange juice and grenadine.

With only one drink to go I turned to another famous bartender (besides Jim Meehan): Jamie Boudreau’s Dunkin Cocktail is my second favorite Rye Whiskey cocktail. It’s a drink where the subtle flavors in a whiskey can shine through, at the same time too bold ones can ruin it.

With all whiskeys and cocktails accounted for my friends and I set to work.

First I will give you the results of tasting the whiskeys neat and after that the different drinks with recipes and score. In the end you will find the overall score. The evaluation scale reaches from 0 (not drinkable) to 5 (best ever tasted).

 Bulleit 95 Small Batch Rye Whiskey: 45%, 36,8 €/Liter
Nose: spices, glue, slightly sweet, pickled cucumbers (that was just my first impression)
Points: 2,25
Taste: spicy, with the most alcoholic taste, but the least burn
Points: 2,25
Avg. Score: 2,25 ((Nose + Taste)/2)
Knob Creek Small Batch Rye Whiskey: 50%, 88,5 €/Liter
Nose: just a little bit of glue, cornflakes, spicy
Points: 2,5
Taste: earth, sweet and mild, but with alcoholic afterburn
Points: 3,75
Avg. Score: 3,125
Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond Rye Whiskey: 50%, 37,1 €/Liter
Nose: spicy, roasted bread, grass and hay
Points: 3,5
Taste: grasy, corn, sweetness
Points: 2,75
Avg. Score: 3,125

Ward Eight

Ward Eight:
View in: cl oz
6 cl Rye Whiskey
1,5 cl Lemon Juice
1,5 cl Orange Juice
0,75 cl Simple Syrup

1 Bsp. D’arbo Pomegranate Syrup
Shake – strain – chilled Cocktail glass;
Garnish: No garnish – orange twist if you must;

Bulleit: Knob Creek: Rittenhouse:
Notes: Too sour, not integrated, but most refreshing balanced, mix between sour and sweet, fruity Too sweet, not refreshing
Points: 3,25 3,625 2,25
Ward Eight

Dunkin Cocktail: – Jamie Boudreau
View in: cl oz
4,5 cl Rye Whiskey
1,5 cl Morand Williams Eau De Vie
1,5 cl St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir – strain – chilled Cocktail glass;
Garnish: lemon twist;

Bulleit: Knob Creek: Rittenhouse:
Notes: Sweet, a lot of pear sweet Grasy, too strong
Points: 2,75 3 3

Manhattan

Manhattan:
View in: cl oz
6 cl Rye Whiskey
3 cl Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth

2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
1 Dash Tonka Bean Bitters
Stir – strain – chilled Cocktail glass;
Garnish: Three brandied cherries;

Bulleit: Knob Creek: Rittenhouse:
Notes: Cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, mint, mild Spicy, bitter, Marzipan Christmas spices, Mild, oranges, menthol
Points: 4 2,5 3,125

Winner when mixed:

1. Bulleit 2. Knob Creek 3. Rittenhouse
Score: 3,3 3,0 2,8

One thing I forgot to consider is the winner of the cocktail challenge. Here the Bulleit Rye wins, because of its four point score in the Manhattan.

Overall winner:

1. Knob Creek 2. Rittenhouse
3. Bulleit
Score: 3,1 2,9 2,8

The overall standings change when considering the neat tasting score. After all the Bulleit loses and the Knob Creek wins. The things I draw from this are: On the one hand I would suggest the Bulleit for people who have not much experience with Rye Whiskey. On the other hand I would recommend the Knob Creek to the more experienced whiskey drinker.

I have to say that I am a little bit surprised by the result. I wouldn’t have bet on the Knob Creek to win, simply because I thought of it as an enhanced Jim Beam Yellow Label. Nevertheless, it seems to be a good all-rounder in the tested drinks, while the other two score better in a Manhattan. What doesn’t surprise me is that the weakest Whiskey wins here. In a Manhattan there really isn’t much to hide the booze.

All in all don’t be irritated by the score that seems a bit low. My friends aren’t bartenders, so it was their first real liquor tasting and at least one of them wasn’t a big fan of whisky. Even for me it was quite exhausting, to tell the difference between three similar drinks as the night progressed. However, that didn’t keep us from doing a Bourbon tasting, too.

4 comments Write a comment

  1. Hello,
    I’m quite new in the cocktail business (actually, it’s just a hobby) and I’m yet to decide which Rye I’m going to buy first. So thanks to your nice little test.

    However, in my opinion you made a minor mistake when, you calculated the scores of the Bulleit Rye. When you gave the scores for the test of the neat Ryes, the Bulleit received 4 points for the nose and 2.25 for the taste, but you wrote that he was a 2.25 on average. So either the score for the smell is incorrect or the calculated average score, which would affect the final score.
    I hope, I’m correct. It would be quite embarassing if I wasn’t.
    Please excuse my English, I’m not a native speaker 😉

    • You’re right! Damn copy and paste! It’s 2.25 for both nose and taste. So the overall score remains the same. Thanks for the hint!
      PS: I’m not a native speaker, either… 😉

  2. Bei der puren Verkostung des Bulleit stimmt die Gesamtpunktzahl nicht – es müsste 3,125 Punkte ((4+2,25)/2) sein. Damit hätten dann pur alle drei Produkte 3,125 Punkte.

    Beim Verkosten der Cocktails stimmt die Punktzahl beim Bulleit ebenfalls nicht. Der mittleren Wert der drei Cocktails liegt beim Bulleit bei 3,3 und somit wäre er der Sieger.

    Oder bringe ich da jetzt etwas durcheinander?

    • Die vier Punkte beim Geruch waren flasch. Es sind 2,25 Punkte und somit stimmt die Gesamtwertung wieder. Womit du recht hast ist, dass der Bulleit bei den Drinks eigentlich der Gewinner ist.

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