Major figures don’t really “retire” in the American whiskey industry. Sure, they might step down as an active master distiller for a major distillery, but these long-haulers, typically regarded as legends of the industry, have a tendency to stay on in ceremonial positions at the very least. Still others take their talents to the whiskey equivalent of free agency, becoming sought-after consultants typically hired by new brands to create recipes and give them a sheen of legitimacy. Look at the likes of Dave Pickerell, who worked at Maker’s Mark for years before becoming the industry’s preeminent consultant, guiding brands such as WhistlePig, Watershed and Garrison Brothers to where they are today. Point is, it’s not often that one of these guys just rests on their laurels—once you’re in the bourbon world, you’re there for life.
Case in point, Mr. Jim Rutledge, who spent more than two decades as the master distiller at Four Roses before “retiring” a few years back. Since then, he’s done the expected consulting work, while also opening his own new project, the J. W. Rutledge Distillery. Like many new distilleries launched by industry luminaries, this one isn’t selling any of their own distillate, nor waiting the years it would take to age their own product. Rather, they’re banking on the palate and blending skills of the founder in order to sell sourced whiskey.
For J. W. Rutledge, that has primarily meant using his recognizable status within the whiskey world to draw attention to Cream of Kentucky, the super premium sourced bourbon that first put the new company on the map. Cream of Kentucky combines impressive age statements with solid proof points to justify MSRPs of $150 or above, marking this as a brand for the serious whiskey collectors. At the same time, however, Rutledge and co. have been working on another brand with considerably wider distribution and a much more accessible price point: High Plains Rye. That bottle is making its national debut as July comes to and end, and we’ve got a sample here for tasting.
High Plains Rye is essentially like a survey of the entire American concept of “rye whiskey,” combining five straight rye whiskeys from four states—Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and New York. As the company notes: “Each straight whiskey used in High Plains Rye has its own unique recipe—varying from 51% rye grain to 100% rye—and yeast strain. This generates a very distinct flavor profile and weighs in a 48.5 ABV (97 proof).” The phrase “a blend of straight rye whiskeys” and lack of any specific age statements tells us that each of the whiskeys selected here should be at least 4 years old. MSRP, meanwhile, is a pretty decent $55, which seems fair to me given the potential unique nature of this blend.
The actual distilleries involved, meanwhile, are the following:
— Kentucky Artisan Distillery (makers of Jefferson’s Bourbon)
— Middle West Distillery (Ohio producers of their own spirits, and also the distiller of Horse Soldier Bourbon)
— MGP of Indiana (Bulleit Rye, Templeton Rye and countless others)
— New York Distilling Co. (Ragtime Rye)
That’s a good degree of variety, but how will they come together? Let’s get to tasting and find out.
On the nose, the first thing you can’t miss here is that this is a very rye forward rye whiskey in the classical sense—it is really quite redolent in everything the rye grain brings to the table. I’m getting fresh rye bread with caraway, in addition to lots of black pepper and more herbaceous notes of mild dill and rye grass. There’s also some stone fruitiness here as well, and a more subtle roastiness that contributes just a wisp of chocolate—it’s like the ghost of cocoa moving through. All in all, though, just a celebration of rye on the nose.
On the palate, this is as spicy as you might expect, with an interesting combination of flavors that again highlight the key component, rye. There’s a small amount of sweeter toffee on the front end giving this one a bit of richness, but that impression pulls back pretty quickly into more herbaceous and spice-driven flavors of green tea, dried herbs, citrus and stone fruit. Something here has me thinking “apricot” in particular. Black pepper and cinnamon are present in abundance, while the finish turns more roasty, oaky and lightly astringent, drying the palate slightly between sips in a way that thankfully isn’t too aggressive. This rye whiskey isn’t particularly old by any standard, but I have to say that it seems to present as older than it actually is. All in all, it finds a nice balance, tiptoeing into caramelized sugar and fruit flavors while always returning to rye spice, with well integrated ethanol for the proof.
From start to finish, this strikes me as a very versatile cocktail rye that also drinks pretty nicely neat, while also being a respectable value. For a first release? A very promising beginning for this brand, and indication of Jim Rutledge’s skill as a blender.
Distillery: J. W. Rutledge Distillery
City: Middletown, KY
Style: Blend of straight rye whiskeys
ABV: 48.5% (97 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $55 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.