By S.D. Peters
A lifelong East Coaster in the U.S., I’m not well-versed in the history of America’s “Wild West”… unless we’re talking about the pot stilling wilderness of, say, Western Pennsylvania and the Kentucky Territory in the late 17oo’s… or Sergio Leone’s cinematic deconstructions of the 1960s, which rather stripped the heroic veneer from the traditional Western genre. So, the name Bartholomew Masterson, a.k.a. William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, didn’t mean much to me, until 35 Maple Street of Sonoma, CA, named their 10-year Old Straight Rye Whiskey after him – a whiskey, according to the company’s press kit, that is “as distinctive and rare as the man himself.”
35 Maple Street is a division of The Other Guys, whose President, August Sebastiani, is also distinctive in his own way, as a leading purveyor of affordable California wines. The connection between popular jug wine and high-end whiskey makes Sebastiani, and his sister Mia’s, new venture that much more interesting. Can the Sebastianis work their marketing magic on 100% straight rye whiskey?
Whether or not the Sebastianis’ name is better recognized these days than Masterson’s, his certainly sounds better on a bottle of 100% straight rye whiskey. As August Sebastiani, in an August 2011 BusinessWire.com article (the same month Masterson’s Rye hit the market), said: “[Masterson] had considerable depth of character, much like our rye whiskey.”
Depth indeed. Rye is experiencing a small renaissance these days, and Bat Masterson was something of a Renaissance Man – if it’s okay to apply the term to a character straight out of the strange and almost fantastical (or fanatical) history of the lawless American West. Gunfighter, Army scout during the Indian Wars, sheriff, gambler du jour, buffalo hunter, friend of Wyatt Earp, actress’ groom, confidence man’s confidant, U.S. Marshall by appointment of Theodore Roosevelt, prize fight promoter, sports writer, editor, and columnist. Had he lived past 1921, he’d probably have added whiskey runner and speakeasy owner to his CV, too. Being a journalist – a “man of letters” as it were – might clinch the Renaissance in a title where plain old Man fits everything else, but as a metaphor for living a life that’s above average, Masterson’s a shoe-in. He lived the lives of every Western character ever conceived, full and well. A bottle of whiskey has a lot to live up to if it’s going to bear his name.
Masterson’s is a 100% rye mash – “all rye and only rye” as the press kit states with a pride that’s obvious, “aged in perfectly charred white oak casks for over ten years”. It’s also sourced from Canada, making it a Canadian Rye. Whiskey made from 100% rye is uncommon enough; most American Ryes stick close to the minimum legal requirement for a 52% rye mashbill, and Canadian Rye, so-named only because rye was the typical mash of most Canadian whiskies, has no legal requirement to include rye at all! A 100% rye Canadian Rye suggests something special.
Bottled at 45% alcohol (90 proof), Masterson’s is a masterpiece of distiller’s art: a Rye drinker’s Rye, with all the complex simplicity and subtle candor that make rye a distinguished distillate. It is “a very limited-release rye whiskey”, and my tasting came from Batch #003, Bottle #8739. In the bottle and in the glass, the whiskey flaunts the rusty finesse of a classic rye. Sea salt, leather, capers, and a loamy earthiness blend to tingle the nose with rye’s characteristic spiciness, then drift away on a sliver of sweet vanilla. On the tongue, those flavors return softly, emerging from a woody pepper and finishing in smooth, subtle vanilla that lingers long before drifting away in velvety spice.
If perfection is the absence of complaints, then Masterson’s suffers only because it comes in a bottle that attempts to outdo or oversell it: you get the impression it’s either jealous and trying to call attention to itself, or worried that the product isn’t enough to win your hard-earned cash. As described in the press kit, “[t]he beautiful glass bottle features a distinctive graceful shape and is designed to showcase Masterson’s alluring amber color while standing out from all others on the shelf.” Granted the design shows off the whiskey’s color, but it seems a bit too lithe for a traditional, robust rye like Masterson’s. The bottle is also packaged in a box that, with its gentlemanly faded newsprint color peppered with ‘old styled newspaper articles about Bat Masterson’s life’, already attracts notice without being so smug about it.
Masterson’s 10-year Old Straight Rye Whiskey retails for $70-$80 in the U.S. It’s availability is limited, but if you find a bottle, rest assured that this 100% straight rye whiskey is, drop-for-drop, worth 100% of the price.