Two Pockets Full of Rye From Woodford

You named your latest release well, Woodford Reserve. Your Rare Rye Selection manages rarity on many levels.

The first rye whisky from the Woodford Distillery comes in a dual-bottle package that showcases two different maturation methods to go with its unusual 100 percent rye recipe.

The latest plot twist in Woodford Reserve's six-year Master's Collection compares whisky made in previously used barrels to a product aged in new oak. Master distiller Chris Morris considers the approaches "Old World and New World," respectively, and calls them the globe's "two distinct types, or families, of whiskey flavor.

The side-by-side comparison is a fun exercise for those of us who ponder deeply the Great Whiskey Question: What effect does new oak (or used oak, for that matter) have on a whiskey? The answer is fascinating. However, be prepared to shake out your pockets a bit to find out. These two pockets full of rye come in a single package with one 375-milliliter bottle of Aged Cask Rye and another 375 of New Cask Rye for $99.99.

Morris further distinguishes the two aging methods as "grain forward" (Old World) and "wood forward" (New World). Reused casks are the norm in Scotland and Ireland. The standard for what is called straight whiskey—using new charred oak vessels every fill—was born in the United States. Bourbon, American straight rye and Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey are all made this way. Rather than discarding casks, whiskey-makers typically sell used barrels to those "Old World" producers who reuse them.

What’s prevented us in the past from making direct comparisons of the two maturation methods is that whiskies of different nationalities also use different mashbills—or grain recipes. Single-malt Scotch, for instance, uses only barley. Bourbon is mostly a corn mixture. Rye whiskey, of course, is based on rye grain, but typically only about 70 percent  (with corn and barley taking up the slack).

Both Rare Rye Selection quaffs are made solely from rye, which is notable since the three pots stills at Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, had been used solely to make Bourbon since the facility was refurbished in 1993. (The use of “Old World” pot stills is also unusual in Kentucky, where “New World” column stills are the norm.)

This new rye release keeps with the Master Collection tradition of offering refreshing takes on whiskey each year. Earlier limited releases have included a four-grain Bourbon, one finished in barrels used for Sonoma-Cutrer (a California Chardonnay owned by the parent company, Brown-Forman), a seasoned-oak whiskey, a Bourbon finished in maple oak and a sweet-mash Bourbon.

The latter one is a particular anomaly since the Woodford distillery was once run by James Crow, who pioneered the now-industry-standard, sour-mash method that makes for more consistent whiskey. In that method, some of the spent mash from a previous fermentation is backset to start the next batch, because it controls bacteria and pH balance. The team of the then-owner, Oscar Pepper, and Crow also implemented a rule of using only new, charred oak barrels, another distillery norm that was side-stepped in the case of the Aged Cask Rye half of the latest Rare Rye Selection.

Our summation: It would be hard to argue that the two approaches have distinct effects. The aged cask produced makes a lighter, fruitier, almost floral whiskey and the new cask offers spirits with more savory flavors and gravitas. Savor the chance to tell the difference while it lasts (the limited release is now available in 47 U.S. markets in major metro areas). But we think Woodford should consider a straight rye as a permanent addition to its lineup.

Woodford Reserve Master's Collection—Rare Rye Selection (92.4 proof, 46.2 percent alcohol by volume, $99.99 for two 375-milliliter bottle package)

Aged Cask Rye

APPEARANCE: The used casks show a distinctly lighter color: Champagne yellow. However, its thin legs give themselves up very slowly.

NOSE: As advertised it has an “Old World” nose—very honey- and fruit-like. There is also apple, tropical fruit and some spice, mainly in the form of cinnamon.

PALATE: In place of the pop of a new-cask whiskey, you get nuanced hard candy on the tongue with honey, butter rum, slight caramel and the cinnamon of a red candy apple.

FINISH: The expected rye tang comes at the end and is joined with toast and fleshy pear.

New Cask Rye

APPEARANCE: The deep amber color with hints of copper will identify the New Cask Rye, even if you wash off the labels. The legs are thicker and also quite slow to release.

NOSE: You could also tell the difference blindfolded from the nose. Huge caramel, vanilla, and toffee aromas greet you and are followed by licorice, pears, cinnamon, and honey.

PALATE: In the mouth it’s very Bourbon-like despite the all-rye mashbill. Caramel, toffee, licorice, and cinnamon all follow from the nose. Then come toast, honey, hard candy, butterscotch and red berries.

FINISH: Once again, the rye grain announces itself more on the finish with rich, not sharp, spice flavors, as well as fruit, buttered toast and raspberry jam that go for ages.