From the Distiller...More Learning' To Do
Just when you thought you had a bit of a handle on blending and aging, nature throws you a curve--in this case, a rye curve. When the American whiskey was being blended, things went the way I expected: a slightly higher proof works better in cocktails, and a little bit lower proof was better for sipping. Well, it turns out rye is a different beast. Rye doesn’t play by the “rules”. Rye is packed with flavors, and as I have found, you can have too much of a good thing. I started with the same approach I used with the American whiskey, by slowly adding water over several weeks and tasting it as I went. When I got to a proof where I liked the flavors (approx. 106 proof), I made a couple of small samples that ranged in proof at around the level where I had stopped adding water. I was pleased with how the rye was tasting all by itself, so we tested 3 different proofs in several different cocktails. While the drinks were OK, there were some flavors I was not necessarily happy with, which meant it was time for some more experimenting. I tried adding a little bit of corn whiskey to the mix to see if a little sweetness helped. Opinions were mixed. I went to the web to look at reviews of other rye whiskeys, and I noticed that unlike with bourbon, most of the rye whiskeys were at lower proofs. More dilutions were made, this time all under 100 proof. Bingo! Cocktails made with these were a lot better. The flavor of the rye at higher proofs was just too much in the cocktails, even though it tasted good all by itself – just the opposite of the American whiskey. Lesson learned.
I am in the final stages now of bringing the rye proof down and expect it to end up around 98 proof. What was consistent between the rye and the American whiskey was the impact that different proofs had on the cocktails we tested. It really is amazing the difference between say, 98 and 100 proof in a cocktail. The standout cocktail we tested with the rye is probably the most classic rye cocktail of all, the Sazerac. Also, a simple rye and ginger ale (not ginger beer) highball was a clear winner. There is something about this combination that just works. This was the only cocktail that tasted great at every single proof we tested.
While this was going on, we also bottled up a 100% wheat whiskey that we filled 1 year ago for the PSU MBA class of 2017. A single year of aging is really pushing if for a full-sized barrel of whiskey, but this particular barrel had a heavy char, and knowing it had to be ready in just 1 yr., I kept it in the most favorable place in the distillery; up high and close to the door so sun would hit it and heat it up during the day. The whiskey turned out quite well and really highlights the texture that wheat brings to the table--this stuff is smooth and rich. The aging has enhanced some of the flavors found in the unaged wheat and also has added some nice vanilla and caramel notes. This is a pretty nice sipper served neat, and I found it makes a very nice substitute for bourbon in a mint julep where its richness helps to round out a pretty potent drink.