Whisky and Words Number 78: Bulleit 95 Rye

Today’s entry is going to be a benchmark for some craft whiskies to come. In the U.S., we’ve see billboard ads for Bulleit products fairly regularly over the last 10 years. This is a brand with some history (mid-1800s), though it was dormant for 120 years. The brand was reflated in the late 1980s, then sold to Seagrams, which was gobbled up by Diageo.

Diageo’s Bulleit bourbon is centered in two plants, the larger being almost 7 M litres per year. That dwarfs most Scottish distilleries. But that’s not all. This 95 Rye spirit is distilled at another facility, MGP Indiana, a contract distiller. This is a typical arrangement for American whiskies. Whereas in Scotland they have contracted out much of the maltings, cooperage and some bottling and warehouses, in the US, it’s more common that the distillation is contracted out en toto. So what’s a brand in that case? Some ‘producers’ do their own finishing: cask and aging. Others buy the stuff finished and just supply the marketing. Mostly, that’s fluff and sometimes gets them into legal trouble.

According to Wikipedia, this same 95% rye, 5% corn mashbill spirit is contracted out to 8 different brands, some of which are Diageo brands, others are smaller independents who sell for as much as $90 a bottle. You can read about MGP here, and I quote (emphasis mine):

The company’s facilities, including its massive Indiana distillery formerly owned by Seagram’s and LDI, supplies much of the industry’s sourced whiskey and vodka. This includes around 80-85% of the market’s rye, according to MGP estimates.”

You might imagine I come into this review with a gimlet eye. The massive industrialization of spirit in the US is one reason I hesitated to embark on American whiskey reviews. Yet, the US market is huge, and perhaps some folks who toss back the mechanized liquids may stray here and find that there are other options outside of bourbon and rye.

On to what’s in the bottle. What the Bulleit folks tell us on their product site is that it has won a bunch of awards. That’s it. From the name of the spirit, “Straight American Rye Whiskey” we glean a tad more. According to the rules for US Whiskey, Straight rye must be aged a minimum of 2 years, not contain any flavors or colors, and all the whiskey in the bottle must be distilled in same state.

What’s in the bottle? From a foot away a freshly poured glass has a pleasant caramel and bread-dough aroma. Closer nosing brings out the rye’s characteristic mild spice and toffee. There’s some watermelon rind, fresh-cut oak (from those new-make American casks), and drying hay. On the palate, it’s quite mild for the ABV, smooth and spicy with the aforementioned aromas riding along with a gentle amount of tannins. There is more toffee and caramel than tannin, so it is decidedly sweet. The finish is again mildly aromatic with the watermelon rind and rye more to the fore, green and slightly bitter, like watercress.

Bulleit 95 Rye, Straight American Rye Whiskey, 45% ABV

Nose: Caramel, bread dough, mild grassy rye spice and toffee. Lighter aromas include watermelon rind, fresh-cut oak and drying hay.
Palate: Smooth and sweet, with all the rye aromas from the nose persisting. Some tannins to balance the sweetness.
Finish: Rye and aromatics linger a while: watermelon rind and watercress. Sweet.

Bottom Line: The rye is more interesting than the mass-market bourbons, and at $30, a bit more expensive too. That extra $10 gets you some nice aromas, and if you like the green spiciness of rye, that’s covered. It is on the sweet side and never really cleans up. This is something you could gulp, frankly, and I can imagine the ‘Frontier whisky’ moniker on the front encourages manly quaffing of shots. It’s not a bad value compared to Scotch blends if you like the grassy, sweet American style. If this is your tipple and you are looking for a real batch-distilled product, try a vatted malt like Monkey Shoulder for about the same coin.

A well-made aromatic rye that’s heavy on the sweetness. Needs some tannins boosted!

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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