New York is known for a lot of things. Rye whiskey probably is somewhere around page six, if it makes the list at all. Hopefully this will soon change.
While at the craft-distilled spirits tasting and seminar this past week, I got to try two fantastic rye whiskeys. One is made by Tuthilltown Spirits (a little to the south outside of Poughkeepsie), and the other is made by Finger Lakes Distilling (on the southeastern side of Seneca Lake).
While they are both blazing the trail of bringing craft distilling back to New York State, these two operations couldn’t be more different. I got to speak with each of the distillers, and they approach their whiskey from two opposing perspectives. Ralph Erenzo at Tuthilltown embraces the inconsistency of the batch system. Thomas Earl McKenzie at FLD believes in the importance of maintaining consistency from batch to batch.
And I have to say, when you reach the price point of Tuthilltown, inconsistency might be a bit hard to swallow. Their 375ml bottles, close to the size of a soda can, retail for about $45. That is the equivalent of a $90 bottle of booze. People buy them, and I understand why. But the FLD rye is magnificent and a steal at half the price.
Mr. McKenzie sent me home with a bottle of his rye, which has given me a lot more time and focus to evaluate it.
First, let me tell you a bit more about Thomas Earl McKenzie. He is from southern Alabama, and he talks in a thick drawl. Unlike many craft distillers in New York, his background actually included wine-making, brewing, farming and consulting for distilleries before he took over the still at FLD. Among other spirits, he now also makes a remarkably aromatic gin and a Southern-style unaged corn whiskey that I am now dying to try.
Thanks to the magic of the internets, you can actually see Thomas Earl McKenzie pouring his namesake whiskey and hear him describe the process to some guy with a video camera on FLD’s blog.
The funny thing about taste is that everybody’s is different.
The official line from the distillery says:
McKenzie Rye Whiskey is made from local rye grain (you can see the fields across the lake from the distillery) and is distilled using old-time techniques. We age this whiskey in new charred oak quarter casks and finish in sherry barrels from local wineries. The sherry balances the spiciness of the rye and also gives a nod to the wine region where this whiskey is produced. Notes of orange peel, cardamom, mint and butterscotch stand out on the palate. Exceptionally smooth for a young whiskey.
This rye is immediately assertive on the palate, offering a bite of clove smoothed with notes of caramel and clover. Hints of orange peel, mint and cardamom come through, with a buttery finish. This is an excellent example of the craft distiller’s art, particularly interesting since it comes from a comparatively new enterprise.
This newcomer from upstate New York features a nose of fresh baked biscuits and wonderful maple and brown sugar flavors on the palate. One of the best American craft whiskies ever produced, if you enjoy rye whiskey, don’t miss out on Mackenzie rye.
What about me?
I find this rye to be haunting. It is so distinctive, and so delicious that after having a glass of it Tuesday night, I kept imagining the taste for the rest of the next day.
What is amazing to me is how much of the grain really comes through. On the nose, I get grain, hay and dried tarragon, with possibly something that smells like lanolin. Mrs. Fussy is in love with it because it reminds her exactly of the smell in her old barn, where they stacked hay bales for the sheep to eat in winter, and where as a child she would play with her little brother.
I had hoped that it would make a magnificent Manhattan – and maybe it does with some other vermouth. But the thing that I love, that graininess, with a bit of caramelized sweetness to balance the spice, just doesn’t integrate well with the vermouth I stock.
But it’s of little matter. This rye is so good, I’d rather enjoy its enchanting aroma and flavor unadulterated than mixed into a cocktail. Especially now in this New York winter, as the wind whips the snow in my face, chilled cocktails aren’t especially appealing.