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Good News/Bad News: The Last of Rittenhouse Single Barrel Rye

Jack Bettridge
Posted: September 1, 2009

Rye enthusiasts are once again asked to take the bad with the good as Heaven Hill releases the next installment of its super-aged Rittenhouse Very Rare Single-Barrel Straight Rye Whisky in October. The new issue offers the unusual opportunity to drink 25-year-old rye, but it's the last chance.

The 3,000 bottles that will be issued represent the end of the successful one-off brand extensions, which included a 21- and 23-year-old within the past three years.

With this news also comes the announcement that Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond, a longtime company stalwart that has recently garnered plaudits, is going on strict allocation. When it was named North American Whiskey of the Year and Best Buy of the Year in separate whiskey competitions, the rye, at around $20 a bottle, quickly became recognized as top values. Most of the stock is now being relegated to the New York City and California markets.

Straight Rye whiskey is a category which had lost significant market share, beginning with Prohibition, but which has been on a tear in the last decade as whiskey fans and cocktail builders have recognized its charms. Rye distillers have responded with a stream of high-quality releases even as the overall supply of rye is less than robust. Because some of the top-quality rye is older than 10 years, it would have been difficult for producers to predict a demand for it more than a decade ago and have large quantities on hand for consumption today. Such highly aged brands as the 12-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye have been on allocations for years.

That the Rittenhouse Very Rare collection ever came to be was a result of serendipity. The original lot of 95 barrels was intended for a private-label customer of Heaven Hill. The company was aging the whiskey for the customer, which failed to call for it until it was far beyond the intended age. When the rye neared the unusual age of 21 years, Heaven Hill approached the whiskey's owner and offered to buy it back. In 2006, it released the Rittenhouse Very Rare 21-Year-Old Straight Rye Whisky.

Parker Beam, the Heaven Hill master distiller, says that the whiskey was able to age so long because of its location on the first floor of Rickhouse 00, where the temperatures are lower than on higher floors. Still the rye produced has been extremely spicy.

The 100-proof whiskey ($190, 750 milliliters) is released without chill filtering, a process which is used to keep organic residue from clouding. The process is done for cosmetic reasons, but opinions differ over whether it removes flavor from whiskey. The rye is also a single-barrel whiskey, meaning that it is not the product of mixing several barrels, which is typically done to achieve consistency.

The taste of the 25-year-old whiskey is predictably full-bodied, although the extra two years aging over the 23-year-old has not caused it to become overly woody or tannic as might be the expectation. It may even have mellowed somewhat after the two previous releases, which were spice bombs.

The Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond is the descendant of a brand originally made in Pennsylvania, which, with Maryland, was the original home of rye. Like most ryes, it is now made in Kentucky by a Bourbon manufacturer. "Bottled in Bond" is a legal designation that among other things means it is at least 100 proof and four years old. The company also makes an 80-proof Rittenhouse as well as Pikeville and Stephen Foster ryes.

Rittenhouse Very Rare 25-Year-Old Single Barrel Rye, Barrel #1 Produced 10/11/1984

APPEARANCE: It's a dark amber whiskey with the slight cloudiness associated with the lack of chill filtering. It gives up its legs very, very slowly in shapely tears.

NOSE: After an initial blast of spice, becomes redolent of much candy with licorice and maple.

PALATE: Comes out with a sharp tang of spice and Stilton cheese, then turns very sweet, very quickly. The taste of a licorice Necco wafer settles on the middle of the tongue, and then come maple, vanilla, caramel and toast.

FINISH: Extremely long finish, as the candy and maple of the palate seem to last forever. A quarter of an hour later come graham cracker and honey notes.

Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond 100 proof

APPEARANCE: Deep amber color with thick legs

NOSE: As well as being spicy, smells of vanilla, apple and maple.

PALATE: Hugely spicy and slightly rough to start, but is quickly rounded out by vanilla around the edges. Some apple, maple and orange.

FINISH: Gets even rounder and smoother on the complex finish of nuts, caramel, vanilla, apple and toast.

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