I have just returned from the St. Louis Bourbon Festival. It was an excellent Bourbon festival. I arrived on Thursday and was invited to a Bourbon panel discussion at Lit Cigar Bar. The discussion panel was led by Steve Akley and comprised of Stephen Fante, Ian Stirsman and Danny Polise. Fante is the brand ambassador for Limestone Branch Distillery, Stirsman is the Master Distiller at Ross & Squibb Distillery and Polise is one of the founders of the Penelope Bourbon brand. It was a lively discussion and well presented.
After the discussion panel, I was introduced to Ian Stirsman and asked him a question – “I was told by John Pogue several years ago that MGP (now Ross & Squibb Distillery) was the best and worst thing that ever happened to rye whiskey. They put a lot of great rye whiskey on the market, but now everyone thinks that rye has to taste just like MGP rye. What do you think of that statement?” Ian laughed and told me he had read that on my blog – he is a follower of my blog, and he agreed. He thinks it a bit sad that everyone now is making rye whiskey with the 95% rye, 5% malted barley mash bill. He went on to explain that in the Seagram days of ownership of the distillery, Seagram tried to make the same whiskey in Canada and Maryland – to the extent that they shipped water from the distillery to these places, and it never tasted the same. The same mash bill and yeast, as well as the water, but it still tasted different. I told him the story that Ed Foote told me from his Seagram days that the five distilleries in Kentucky tried to make the Bourbons from each distillery at the other distilleries and had the same results. They just did not taste the same.
Ian laughed and said that proves his point. There are so many variables – wild yeast, local climate, still shape and size, etc…, that it is impossible to make the identical at different locations. We both agreed that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it is a shame that new distilleries don’t try to make their own flavor profile with different mash bills. It is a bit ironic that the whiskey we tasted that night was Rossville Union Rye made with 51% rye and 49% malted barley. It was an excellent rye whiskey with great flavor of rye grass, vanilla, a bit of fruit, and oak, and very different from the rye everyone expects from Ross & Squibb.
The following night, I was a guest at their tables at the festival. I had more time to talk with Steve Fante and Ian Stirsman while they poured whiskey. I was happy to hear from Fante that the Minor Case rye is the best-selling product at the gift shop at Limestone Branch Distillery. It is a rye whiskey that is finished in Sherry casks and has a lovely hint of fruit from the sherry casks, but still has a nice rye whiskey flavor. This proves that rye whiskey does not all have to taste like a 95% rye mash bill.
Rye whiskey has the same potential for variation of flavor as does Bourbon. It is a shame that more distilleries do not understand this fact. I would like to see more distilleries experiment with different rye mash bills. Ross & Squibb are doing so and finding success with the experiments. Ian also told me that they are experimenting with heirloom varieties of rye, not just different mash bills. They are leading the way of the big distilleries with this experimentation in rye whiskey.
There are many smaller distilleries making excellent rye whiskey such as the Maysville Club Rye from the Old Pogue Distillery made with 100% malted rye and the Liberty Pole Distillery with wheat in their rye whiskey. Unfortunately, more small distilleries are making 95% rye mash bill whiskey and that makes the category a bit one dimensional in flavor profile. I hope that this changes in the future.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller