I love a good local distillery, so I’m just going to jump in with both feet on this one. I tasted Sonoma County Distilling Company’s first rye release (a single barrel of straight rye whiskey bottled in 375ml bottles) and its cask-strength bourbon (review here). Right out of the gate, the rye blew me away. THIS is their first attempt at a rye?! At the risk of spoiling the below tasting notes (which none of you read anyway, admit it), this guy has the round, soft, sweet new-oak aroma of Cut Spike, with the airy piney flavors of a good young craft rye. This, plus bottling at cask strength and a “straight” designation (2 years of age if they’re not cheating the TTB) makes for a very solid bottle. At $50 for 375ml, it’s squarely in the “pay for craft” sector, but I’m hugely in favor of paying $50 for 375ml over $100 for 750ml. Note that most of the company’s other releases are in the $50 – $65 range for full-size bottles.
Sonoma County Distilling, located in Rohnert Park, CA and opened in 2010, uses direct-fired copper alembic pot stills for its whiskies, which are twice-distilled (like most single-malt scotches, which are also distilled in pot stills). The 100% rye in the mashbill is a combination of unmalted Canadian rye and malted rye from the UK. The whiskey is aged in new charred American oak and bottled at a reasonably low cask strength of 53.7%, at least it was for this single-barrel release. I tasted bottle #009 from barrel 14-0129 which produced only 25 cases, and was bottled in December of 2016.
Update 5/31/2021: Sonoma has changed its name to Sonoma Distilling Co., and release whiskey under new labels, such as this rye that I found at Costco.
Nose: Sweet! fudgy (maple fudge or blonde fudge). Round, and not overtly “rye”… in other words there is no heavy vegetal, pine, or eucalyptus element, and the soft sweet notes take center stage. At cask strength, the aroma is strong and decadent, with no detracting qualities at all. Reminds me of all of the things I love about Cut Spike, but with a straight rye. Excellent.
Palate: Thin body. Ahh! There’s the pine. It’s nicely balanced against caraway, lightly-sweet new oak (vanilla, brown sugar), and sweet cream. The tongue burn is intense. After it subsides, notes of juniper, hazelnut, rose water, and nougat pervade.
Finish: Long. Some elements from the aroma return (maple fudge) as well as from the palate (nougat). This fades without bitterness.
With Water: A couple of drops of water reveal more vegetal (pine/juniper) notes in the aroma. The tongue burn is lessened, however, and may be a tad sweeter. Water is optional with this one.
Overall: I’m very curious if the successes of this rye translate to the regular batched versions of the distillery’s ryes, or if this particular cask was stand-out. The fudgey, round, flawless façade of the aroma contrasts nicely with the grain-forward-but-complex flavors on the tongue. The finish is basic, but doesn’t detract. Overall, this is a highly successful craft rye for a highly craft price. If you live in the area or plan to visit Sonoma, at least visit the distillery.