By S.D. Peters
Rye whiskey drinkers must be enjoying the 21st Century. After decades of dependence on Old Overholt and Jim Beam Straight Rye, this piquant American whiskey has returned in superior form. Champions of the “Rye Revival” may be mostly boutique, and inspired by a resurgent cocktail culture, but no serious Rye drinker will scoff a trend that’s brought back the most popular pre-Prohibition American Whiskey. There’s nothing wrong with a good cocktail, especially one that features Rye. A friend of mine in the Bronx mixes a Rye Sazerac that could air-condition an East Coast July, and there’s nothing about a bad day workday in D.C. that a Rye Manhattan won’t mellow. Yet the best the best argument in favor of cocktails is that they’ve ensured American Rye a wider berth on the shelf of my local liquor stores.
Knob Creek is the latest brand to enter the Rye market, and it’s an important entry. The Knob Creek brand is well-known as one of the Beam Family’s premier small batch bourbons. Introduced 20 years ago by Jim Beam’s grandson, Booker Noe (a name well-known to whiskey lovers), Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon embodied the best of pre-Prohibition style whiskey. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Knob Creek brand is introducing the most popular type of pre-Prohibition whiskey, nor that the brand is owned by Jim Beam, the company that distills Old Overholt and Jim Beam Rye, the industry standards. Average American Ryes they may be, but for decades they were also the only American Ryes in an unpopular market, which proves Beam’s dedication is beyond reproach.
Anyone who has tried Knob Creek Small Batch Bourbon knows it owes part of its distinct taste to the rye in its mashbill – it’s hard to miss the spicy nose and peppery-sweet finish – so it’s about time the rye had a chance to stand on it’s own merits. In fact, the only questionable quality of Knob Creek Rye is that the adverb “finally” has to be appended to the phrase “on the market,” especially when we’re talking about a company that’s kept the two best-known American Ryes on the shelves all these years.
Setting aside questions that plague Rye aficionados (Why did America lose interest in Rye? Why haven’t more mainstream distillers brought the whiskey back on the market sooner? Why did we have to wait for a cocktail revival in order to finally see a return of the whiskey that, for all the outstanding qualities it brings to a well-mixed cocktail, at its best is really best enjoyed neat?), let’s get to what makes the arrival of Knob Creek Rye an event that ought to define 2012.
Knob Creek Rye comes in the same classic, hip-flask style bottle as it’s Bourbon counterpart, with a black wax seal around the cap. Peeling the seal away reveals the product’s only flaw: unlike the Bourbon, which as a cork stopper, Knob Creek Rye has a screw cap.
Let’s not quibble, though. The screw cap may is merely a minor flaw (in this writer’s opinion) that in no way undermines what really matters: a blend of “extra-aged rye whiskey” that includes whiskey “aged for as long as nine years.” There’s some excuse, at least, for why it’s taken so long for this whiskey to appear. The whiskey is none the worse for it, and whatever impatience we Rye drinkers may have had, disappears as soon as the bottle is uncapped.
The deep copper glow bodes well, and the aroma – a pepper-infused oak sprinkled with herbs, permeates the room as soon as the cap is off the bottle. The richness in the air is not belied in the glass, where an added insinuation of caramel and vanilla make it hard to resist that first sip. More surprises await, however, as the rich, spicy woodiness mellows into distinct white pepper finish, full and long, that springs a hint of strawberry as it recedes. There’s nary the bite you might expect from a 50% alcohol (100 proof) bottling, which only makes the mood-lightening quality of any higher-proof whiskey all the more “intoxicating” (figuratively speaking).
While Rye drinkers might like to know the percentage of rye in any American Rye (above the minimum 51% required by law), Knob Creek doesn’t release the exact mashbill, but they offer that their “Rye is made with the finest quality rye grains.” Some Rye drinkers may be to the whiskey what a pitch perfect listener is to music. I’m not that good, but to my taste, Knob Creek Rye packs a solid percentage of some pretty fine rye grain.
A little behind some of the even smaller batch boutique Ryes in subtlety, Knob Creek Rye offers Rye drinkers the best option of a classic American Rye this side of Wild Turkey 101 Straight Rye. And the good news from Knob Creek is that their Rye will be a “permanent member of the Knob Creek family”, which means this new addition to the available Rye’s will remain readily available once it hits the U.S. market in July 2012.
The recommend retail price for Knob Creek Rye is $39.99. I’m hoping I’ll find it for a dollar less in my local Virginia ABC Store, where it’s Bourbon counterpart retails for $38.99. Considering that state monopolies in the liquor market tend to mark-up the price, that’s not too bad. But it’s no reason not to shop around in the American market – especially since Knob Creek Rye is a brand you’ll want to keep in steady stock. The Beam company has said that “out of the gate”, Knob Creek Rye will only be distributed in the U.S., although “there may be plans to distribute elsewhere in the future”. For a Rye this good, I hope the future is soon.
Knob Creek Rye, which as of this writing has not yet seen national U.S. release, has already won a Double Gold medal, and was voted “Best Rye Whiskey” at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.