Whisky and Words Number 88: Stein Distillery Rye Whiskey, 2 yrs

From the dry and windswept plains comes the Ram rye.

As I covered in the review of their bourbon, Stein distillery (website) is a small, craft distiller in Joseph, Oregon. This is not the damp and mossy Oregon where I live; Joseph is located in the high plains, with sunny, hot summers and cold winters. They’ve been around for 12 years now and I found the straight Bourbon quite good.

According to the hand-written notation on the label, my rye is bottle 8 from barrel 560—that’s a tell on the scale of the Stein operation. They are small. And they are local. You can read about how they source their grain from Eastern Oregon farmers in a profile about the family-built and family-run operation here. Their website is spare—you can see photos of their spirits and a short writeup on their whiskies here. But they provide no info on the mash bill or any other production details. Stein calls this spirit ‘straight rye,’ but that just means it is not blended with any other spirits and it is aged at least 2 years.

For comparison, I have a bottle of Bulleit 95 rye, reviewed in February. I found it sweet and mildly grassy, more interesting than mass-market bourbons but not exactly outstanding in flavor. The contrast of its origin  with the Stein’s could not be more stark: the $25 Bulleit is distilled in a 7M liter per year Indiana distillery (which contracts to at least 8 other brands), while Stein is a family owned shop that hand-notates their label and goes for $38 (reasonable, if you are used to buying Scotch). I’ll have to try the 5-year rye next (about $50 in Oregon).

On an appropriately sunny day, we compare the Stein Ram 2-year to a Bulleit ’95’ rye.

Upon uncorking the Stein, I get a subtle aroma. It does not dominate a room like some of the older Scotches I’ve reviewed of late. Getting closer to the glass brings out a good, thick nose. I get vanilla, pear, caramel and Christmas spices as the main elements, with fresh cut grass hovering in the back. A deep sniff brings out new oak. The Bulleit nose in contrast is thinner and grassier, without the broader fruit and caramel aroma of the Stein.

Taking a sip of the Stein brings golden syrup and a lively spice simultaneously, with a bit of marshmallow sweetness following. The spice is enough to balance the sweet, which is good because there are not a lot of tannins on the follow-through. Most of the dryness is on the front of the tongue but it does balance the sweet notes well. The finish is quick, and not particularly smooth. Overall, a pretty good sip if you like the grassy aroma rye brings.

The Bulleit has that watermelon and watercress vibe going I noted in my review but the main contrast is the thinner palate: more sucrose than caramel, does not boast the charming spices or marshmallow of the Stein, and some harshness, probably due to the higher alcohol. Its finish is also short, somewhat harsh, grassy and sweet, but does persist the rye aromas well. I’d say the win goes to the Stein, comfortably.

Stein Distillery Straight Rye, aged 2 years, 40% ABV

Nose: Vanilla, pear, caramel and Christmas spices with fresh cut grass hovering in the back; new oak.
Palate: Golden syrup, marshmallow and a lot of eggnog spices (clove, nutmeg, cinnamon). A pretty lively dram on the sides of the tongue but the aforementioned sweet elements make it work.
Finish: The finish is balanced but dry and pretty quick, slightly harsh tail.

Bottom Line: If I was buying Scotch with $38 in my pocket, I would go for Johnnie Walker Black, a well-behaved blend with some character. American whiskeys are cheaper than Scotch: they are aged less, made in column stills and rely on the massive agricultural output of the US farmer for low input costs. In this range, approaching $40, you have a lot of options. The Stein rye is a step up in complexity from the Bulleit and the nose and richer palate are probably worth the upcharge for rye lovers. The sip starts out really well for a young whisky, while the finish is unsurprising given the age in barrel. It delivers more character than a blend, and if you like the spiciness of a rye, worth a try. I’ll be comparing it to other small distillers’ wares in the future.

Stein’s 2-year Rye has some good body and very good nose. It likely has good competition and we’ll ferret that out in the future.

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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