Well now this is refreshing. A rye, bottled at a decent proof, with an age statement on the back label (6 years), which was distilled and bottled by the company on the label (Heaven Hill Distillery). Glory be. You wouldn’t expect it to be hard to find a whisky that is actually made by the people listed on the label, but here we are.
Heaven Hill produces myriad brands, including the eponymous Heaven Hill Bourbon (I love that word, and I never get to use it…) Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Bernheim Wheat Whiskey, Henry McKenna, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald, Parker’s Heritage, and Rittenhouse Rye.
The Pikesville brand was a pre-Prohibition (and post- until distillation ceased in 1972) Maryland rye. The brand now claims the distinction of being the last Maryland rye brand to fall, despite the category’s once prolific market presence. Heaven Hill brought the brand (although not the Maryland origin) back to life in 2015, using stocks of 6 year-old Heaven Hill rye. The whiskey now sold under the Pikesville brand is a 6 year-old straight rye whiskey distilled in-house at Heaven Hill’s “Old” Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, KY from a mashbill of 51% rye (a minimum requirement for “straight rye”), 39% corn and 10% malted barley. It’s bottled at a robust 55% ABV.
It’s possible that this is in fact Rittenhouse Rye with 2 extra years of age and 10 more proof on it.
Nose: Dusty warehouse floor – nearly fungal – with a coating of dry cocoa powder. These two aromas are so dominant that they wash out anything else. Chocolate warehouse floor. Check. A rest in the glass draws out a faint balsamic vinegar note, and eventually seems to tame some of the weirdness, leaving pumpernickel bread and toffee.
Palate: Medium body, almost syrupy. Tongue burn is surprisingly moderate for something that’s nearly cask strength. Dark, brooding oaky tannins, dense burnt caramel, horehound (boiled hard candies) and Moxie soda.
Finish: Short. Shoe leather, balsamic vinegar, rosemary (??), and pine tar. A tinge of charcoal and then it fades rapidly, leaving only a remnant of dry oak.
With Water: A few drops of water bring back the crazy aromas, and also adds enough sweetness to really drive home the root beer notes. I recommend nosing this neat, and then again after a rest, and then add a little water and start over. The experience does change.
Overall: Whew, this one is all over the place. It comes across much older (and much dryer) than you’d expect for a 6 year-old rye, but that apparent age has not translated into “smoothness” or mellow, well-rounded flavors. Instead everything you expect from a rye seems to have sunk into a bubbling tarpit of eclectic and not-quite-off flavors, with random stuff jumping out at you and then sinking just as suddenly back into the bog. ‘Complex’ doesn’t really cover it. You could definitely spend some time analyzing this one. Note that most of this is lost in a cocktail, where it just tastes like basic dry rye without much sweetness.
I’m going to give this a “Must Try” because it’s one of the most individual and unusual ryes readily available on the shelves these days, even if it doesn’t fit the classic definition of “Good”. When you find something different in a sea of same-y sourced young ryes that actually has a real distillery and an age statement on it, you cling to it like a life raft. For that matter, it’s also hard to find ryes proofed above 100.
Sure, it’s $40 (in some places, $50) which is high for any American whiskey, but it’s probably an experience worth having at that price, and you’re not likely to need to buy a second bottle.