If you’ve glanced around the whiskey aisles recently, you’ve probably noticed an increasing number of whiskeys touted as being “finished” in rum, pinot noir or sherry barrels. You’re not imagining things: what was once a technique more common to Scotch than American whiskey has blown up in recent years.
For many decades, rye was rye: aged in charred new oak (at least two years to be called straight rye), brought to proof with water and bottled. In 2011, the late Lincoln Henderson launched Angel’s Envy with a straight bourbon finished in large port wine barrels for about six months. “It was considered a somewhat radical and visionary concept for American whiskey,” says Owen Martin, the current master distiller for Angel’s Envy. The brand took off immediately and has been releasing a variety of finished bourbons and ryes ever since, with plenty of other distillers following suit.
So what is a finished rye? Essentially, you’re taking aged whiskey and dropping it into a different (secondary) barrel — or throwing in a few barrel staves — and then aging it a few more weeks, months or even years. Generally, secondary barrels initially hold some other spirit, wine or beer, but they don’t have to. The goal is to introduce a hint of the sweetness and nuttiness of port, the richness of red wine, or the grassy brightness of rum to the spicy, caramel goodness of traditional rye. It’s not a flavored product, but the previous liquid in the second barrel has an impact, as we discussed a few years ago. Even finishing in another new oak barrel that’s been toasted or charred differently influences the final product.
The Best Whiskey Trend of 2021? Pairing Ryes With Unique Casks.How extra time finishing in wine, rum and even apple cider barrels is transforming rye
“A barrel makes up about 70% of what a whiskey will taste like,” says Julia Petiprin, co-owner of Homemakers Bar in Cincinnati. “With rye being a more delicate grain with a lighter body, the finish will impart the flavors of that particular barrel. It’s a great way to play around with highlighting the notes of the finish barrel in a cocktail.”
How much the secondary barrel influences the original whiskey depends on several factors: time in the second barrel, how much age the original rye has on it already, the size of the secondary barrel (larger barrels and those used multiple times exert less influence) and a whole host of other little details.
“My philosophy with finishing is that it should always highlight the strengths of the base whiskey,” says Martin. “If I’m working with a particularly strong or sweet finishing barrel, I’ll usually target a higher proof or older aged whiskey to provide balance for the flavors it imparts. Ultimately it will always come down to making sure the finished whiskey is flavorful and each source of that flavor is in proportion and supports the other.”
While finished whiskeys are trendy, and may represent something of a marketing flourish, the process itself isn’t intrinsically good or bad, according to Petiprin. It’s simply another tool for the distiller or blender. “Just as when you’re cooking or making a cocktail: Do I think this particular liquid would taste great with a cherry note? Let’s finish it in French oak. It’s another form of creativity.”
In the end, “Does it taste good?” is the best measure of a great rye, however it’s aged. Below, 14 of our favorite ryes that have undergone an additional barrel maturation.
As part of its annual release of noteworthy cask-strength expressions, distiller Owen Martin put together the brand’s first Cask Strength Rye. The brand’s core rye product (about $80) is finished in Caribbean rum barrels, but Martin opted to go a different route for the limited release. It’s a blend of two straight ryes, aged five to nine years: One spent additional time in first-fill ex-Sauternes (a coveted French sweet wine) casks for three years, while the other sat in toasted oak barrels for six months. Angel’s Envy already produces an incredibly balanced rye with spice and caramel highlights. The 2023 Cask Strength has additional soothing “cream” notes of candied plum, oolong tea, a hint of dairy-driven chocolate (think Cadbury) and a slightly floral finish. The long finish means this is a dram to spend time over.
Colorado’s Old Elk boasts a fantastic, ongoing Cask Finish Series allowing the brand to play with everything from ex-port and French Sauternes to the 14-year Barbados rum casks (probably from Foursquare Distillery) used here, all under the watchful eye of veteran distiller Greg Metze. “We never want to mask the mash bill or the years of aging we’ve already put the whiskey through in the barrel,” says Production Manager Melinda Maddox. “We intend to enhance the whiskey, so we spend a lot of time tasting our whiskey next to the products that have come out of those casks.” (Want to know more? Check out the site’s cask-finishing video.) This finished release is aged at least five years (“Bottled by Old Elk Distillery,” so it likely originally hails from MGP, as does Metze), then tossed into 53-gallon ex-rum barrels for two to five months. The dark amber juice has a soft nose of oak, cinnamon and other baking spices, and just a hint of green apple. On the mouth, it’s got a soft, sweet open, round and spicy on the mid-palate, with a clean pineapple-cigar finish.
Blackened is an American whiskey collaboration between the band Metallica and the late whiskey genius Dave Pickerell. Rob Dietrich — the original distiller for Colorado-based Stranahan’s, one of the first American Single Malt distillers on the scene — is now distilling and blending the juice for Blackened. The brand produces several legit expressions, including a Masters of Whiskey series, partnering with prominent whiskey makers throughout the country. For Rye the Lightning, which launched last year, Kentucky straight rye whiskey aged five to eight years is transferred to a combination of Caribbean rum and Madeira wine casks for 2-14 weeks. You’ll get a veritable cornucopia of dried fruits, grass notes, forest floor, baking spices and more. Like other Blackened products, the rum casks undergo “sonic enhancement”: the whiskey gets to listen to tunes from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning album while aging.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Birkebeiner (Birkie), a major cross-country skiing, running and biking event in Wisconsin, Minneapolis-based Tattersall partnered with the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation to create this limited-edition Wi-Ski (get it?). Three-year straight rye rests in barrels that held maple syrup for more than six months. What you get is a slightly brash, spicy and woody spirit with a hint of sweetness at the end. Think log fires, baking spices, sharp apples and other notes of wintry goodness. Try this in a Manhattan with a little grated nutmeg on top. “For us, the appeal of barrel finishing is really about discovery, and finding a finish that agrees with the base spirit,” says founder Dan Oskey. Last year, Tattersall released a more widely available Port Barrel Straight Rye ($50) aged two years in new oak, then two years in a mix of ruby and tawny port.
As part of its Barrel Select program, Catoctin produces several customized versions of its core Roundstone Rye, each rested an additional six months to a year in other barrels. Two of the most popular, according to founder Scott Harris, are those finished in barrels used to age maple or hickory syrup, available in limited quantities twice each year. The extra aging and the remnant smoky hickory bark syrup notes create a darker, richer and velvety cask-strength product that is easy to sip, or blends well into classic rye cocktails for a little smoke-and-spice variety.
Born during the pandemic, Lost Lantern is an excellent independent bottling adventure from founders Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski. The Lost Lantern team seeks out intriguing American whiskies, releasing them as single-cask expressions or in distinctive and unusual blends. They make a deliberate point of crediting the original producers, something that doesn’t always happen with sourced whiskey. This unusual sweet-and-spice product (part of the 2022 Single Cask Collection) uses Sebastopol-based Spirit Works (a husband and wife team working in a small, must-visit Northern California distillery) two-year straight rye, and drops it into a cask that aged Spirit Works’ own sloe gin where it sits for a third year. Thanks to the youth of the rye, you’ll pick up the jam and berry notes from the sloe gin, along with a hint of juniper.
Claire Marin, founder of Catskill Provisions Distillery, has found a way to combine her love of spirits and all things honey in this intriguing New York State rye. What began in 2010 with a sourced spirit infused with honey has morphed into a product distilled in her own distillery, aged three to four years in new oak, then rested in barrels that held New York honey. The honey rests in the barrels for four weeks, then is replaced with the rye for another four. The result is a young-ish rye with deep color, and those almost-umami back notes you find in great honey: an earthy spice on the sides of the tongue and the back of the throat in a long, dry finish. It’s sippable, but also adds distinctive flavor twists to classic rye cocktails.
An allocated product and a destination label for many, Michter’s (with Master Distiller Dan McKee and Master of Maturation Andrea Wilson) takes its spirit-making very seriously. The Toasted Barrel Finish Rye is an annual release, and president Joseph Magliocco says Michter’s was the first modern American distillery to release a toasted barrel finished whiskey. Straight rye (aged at least two years but probably more) is transferred from its new, charred oak to secondary barrels that have been toasted (run briefly through a fire) but not charred (cooked inside to a blackened “alligator” texture). Very aromatic, the Kentucky whiskey is rich with caramel and chocolate orange on the nose, and equally rich with baking spices, orange peel, caramel and oak on the tongue. Each year’s release is just a little bit different.
Redemption Whiskey launched in 2010; this past summer, Alan Kennedy came on as the brand’s master distiller. “Time is the greatest challenge for any master blender, especially when it comes to finishing whiskey,” he says. “Experimenting with different finishing techniques and cask selections is very time-consuming. It also allows me to find connections that go beyond the wood.” Redemption’s Rum Cask Finish Rye uses the brand’s 95% rye aged at least four years and rests it in a mix of Jamaican and Barbadian ex-rum casks for at least three months. On the nose, a whiff of dried fruit and baking spices hint at the time in rum barrels, and on the palate a mellowing richness from the extra age is topped off with the dry earthiness in the long finish often found in aged rum.
The late Dave Pickerell concocted this fantastic blend of 12-year-aged straight rye whiskeys finished (the label says “matured in”) a precise combination of ex-Sauternes, Madeira and port barrels. Pickerell and the brand acknowledge they borrowed the technique from the realm of Scotch whisky, and it’s become a core component of the WhistlePig portfolio. Sitting in the European casks for a few months rounds and softens the signature bold, brash spiciness that WhistlePig is known for. This is my favorite expression the brand releases on the regular.
If you still picture Jack Daniel’s only in terms of its classic Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey, prepare to have your horizons expanded. The brand, under Master Distiller Chris Fletcher, has dramatically expanded its high-end offerings over the past several years. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee rye mash bill is 70% rye (18% corn, 12% malted barley) and is a velvety, spice-driven pleasure. For this limited-edition release, Tennessee rye is first aged in new American oak for at least five years, before being laid down for over two years in what JD calls “heritage barrels.” These second- or third-use barrels from Jack Daniel’s own cooperage receive a heavy toast, infusing a distinctive complexity and added baking notes. Hints of dark bread, molasses and a biscuit sweetness overlay the caramel, oak and vanilla notes. It’s a great example of the objectively observable differences that even a second whiskey barrel can have on the finished juice.
What do you get when you combine the skills of a 30-year whiskey veteran and one of the industry’s favorite whiskey instructors/writers, and send them to Blanco, Texas? A new whiskey company that feels like it’s been around for a hundred years. Master Distiller Marlene Holmes and CEO/Master Blender Heather Greene have crafted this elegant pour using Indiana straight rye. Batched in their warehouse, they then re-barrel it into old port wine casks and let the Texas heat do its thing. Casks are batched, blended and proofed into a rich, berry- and stewed fruit-driven rye whiskey with plenty of spice, caramel and oak on every daring sip.
Savage & Cooke Master Distiller Jordan Via sources Tennessee rye whiskey and brings it to Northern California to age in new charred American oak for six years. He then drops it into barrels that held “Fine Champagne Cognac” and finishes it for an undisclosed amount of time. The whiskey is brought to a still-high 100-proof with water sourced from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma. At 51% rye (45% corn, 4% malted barley), this is already a softer rye, with a notable sweetness from the corn. The Cognac finishing is represented in a brash (but not unpleasant) finish with the dry “grapiness” of an XO Cognac.
This highly anticipated annual release from one of the original American whiskey blending négociants (they also have a distillery) features the brand’s signature Rendezvous Rye finished in a combination of ruby red and tawny port barrels. High West starts with two mash bills: a 95% rye from MGP and an 80% rye (with 20% malted rye) from High West Distillery. The two are aged and married, then finished. The 2022 release (which is still on store shelves, but getting hard to find) included a 10-year anniversary release and was finished two different ways: in ruby red/tawny and white port barrels. “Playing with cask finishes is so fun for our team,” says High West Distilling Manager Isaac Winter. “There are so many ways to use cask finishes to affect the character of the final blend. Last year, our blend sensory manager, Tara Lindley, purchased some white port barrels. We realized we had something spectacular on our hands, and couldn’t in good conscience blend off the white port-finished lot, and instead released that as MWND The Encore.”
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