I’m not going to deep dive into the history behind Castle & Key once again—I’ve already written about the distillery’s rise from the ashes in the past. Suffice to say, here’s the short version, and the reason why you’re likely to hear some chatter about this new rye whiskey.
Castle & Key is the revitalized distillery located on the site of the original Old Taylor Distillery in Kentucky, built in 1887 by the legendary Colonel E.H. Taylor, after which a renowned Buffalo Trace brand is named. Fittingly, Castle & Key was designed with whiskey in mind, but rather than sourcing while they waited for their own production to mature, they decided to opt for the long, slow wait. Whiskey fans have therefore been waiting for Castle & Key to debut a whiskey of their own for more than four years, and now one is finally here in the form of Restoration Rye.
Those in the know in the whiskey world have also been waiting for this release because it represents one of the few whiskeys on the market that was originally designed and distilled by Marianne Eaves, the woman who earned the title of Kentucky’s first master distiller. She was integral to the launch of Castle & Key as a brand, but left the company to pursue independent whiskey consulting before they ever released their first whiskey. Still, this whiskey reflects on her because she was the one who likely oversaw the majority of its early development, distilling and aging.
The first batch of Restoration Rye hitting shelves now was made from a mash bill of 63% rye, 17% yellow corn and 20% malted barley, making it unique in a few ways. It has a higher rye percentage than the historic, “barely legal” 51% ryes for which Kentucky is known, but less than the 90-100% that has become popular in recent years thanks to MGP of Indiana and other craft rye distillers. The portion of malted barley is also higher than usual, which aids in fermentation but also should contribute more malty and floral impressions.
This first release was split in half, into two batches with similar taste profiles. Batch #1 is about 60 barrels (13,200 bottles), at 51.5% ABV (103 proof), while Batch #2 is 57 barrels (12,540 bottles) at 49.5% ABV (99 proof). Both will be retailing for an MSRP around $40, and are around three and a half years old. Subsequent releases will likely be four years old or more, which will allow them to simply be labeled as “straight rye” without noting the exact age on the bottle.
My sample of Castle & Key Restoration Rye is from Batch #1, at 103 proof. Let’s get to tasting, and see if this spirit has been worth the wait.
On the nose, my initial impressions are of caramel apple, light oak—a bit of sawdust—and considerable rye spice. I’m also picking up slight cacao nib-like nuttiness and some more herbaceous and spicy notes of fennel and dill, but “rye spice” really shines through strongly. Compared with other classic Kentucky ryes, it definitely feels like one with a higher percentage of rye in the grist.
On the palate, the spiciness carries over with loads of pepper and some greener wood notes, along with light molasses sweetness for balance. It’s quite peppery, and sweetness is mild to moderate, but the complexity is lifted by traces of cocoa, citrus and spices that remind me of say … Dr. Pepper, perhaps. Tasting again, it seems a tad sweeter, with more of a honey tea note, but the big takeaway is pepper and rye spice—classic rye whiskey flavors without a doubt. The ethanol, meanwhile, is pretty well integrated for the 103 proof; not obtrusive but not hiding either.
All in all, this is quite a serviceable young rye, especially for those who prefer their rye with plenty of spice and only a modicum of sweetness. Right out of the gate, this should be a versatile cocktail rye with enough strength to shine through in classic whiskey drinks.
We haven’t yet seen what Castle & Key’s plans will be for their first bourbon release, but you can be certain we’ll be keeping an eye on it.
Distillery: Castle & Key
City: Frankfort, KY
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 51.5% (103 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $40 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.