Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Whiskey Review: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye 2011 Release

Thomas H. Handy rye is named after the barman and owner of the Sazerac coffee house who reformulated the original cognac-based Sazerac cocktail into one made with rye whiskey. This whiskey is one of the five elements of the much-lauded annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. However, it differs significantly from the others in being a relatively young, six year-old spirit, while the most wear much more age, especially the 17 year old Eagle Rare bourbon and 18 year old Sazerac rye. In essence, what TH rye offers is the absolute best young rye whiskey to be found in the Buffalo Trace rickhouses, bottled at barrel proof and without chill filtration. It's as close as you can get to drinking straight out of the cask. For better or worse, it hasn't garnered nearly the same attention as its older siblings, often sitting on shelves months after the others have been whisked away by ravenous whiskey connoisseurs and specialist bars. Which is just fine by me, as it has a charm all of its own, distinct from its more oak-heavy brethren.

I first encountered Thomas Handy rye last year when I decided to treat myself to some fine whiskeys as a late birthday present. I had rye on the brain from enjoying Rittenhouse and Sazerac 6 Year, so the BTAC ryes were my first stop. I was still very new to sipping neat spirits and that was my first encounter with truly spectacular whiskey. I left the bar determined to get my hands on some more. While I wasn't able to secure any Sazerac 18 from last year's release, I was able to get ahold of a couple of bottles of TH rye.

Thomas Handy Rye 2011 (64.3%)

Nose: strong fruity notes, rich vanilla and caramel/toffee/maple syrup, corn sweetness, oatmeal, whole wheat sandwich bread, oak tannins, cinnamon, dry cocoa powder, alcohol is definitely present. After adding a few drops of water, the nose becomes softer with less fruit, while gaining a hint of baked apples and additional baking spices, primarily cloves, and some fresh cut wood or sawdust.

Taste: lots of corn sweetness up front with strong vanilla notes, evaporates on the tongue into big maple syrup, volcanic pepper, oak, rich berries/wine, leaving with prickles of spice, dark chocolate and a drying alcoholic heat. After adding some water, the initial sweetness becomes a little more subdued, but it carries through the palate more strongly, and while the overall is less effervescent and the fruit somewhat disappears, baking spices, especially clove, also come out strongly at the back of the mouth along with fresher wood.

Finish: sweetness and vanilla, still drying with a lingering burn

Surprisingly, this actually feels much more like a bourbon than a rye to me. Admittedly, the Sazerac mash bill is only 51% rye, which means there is still plenty of corn in the recipe. But without more distinctive rye elements like mint, it reads much more like a high rye bourbon.

Ultimately what you're getting is everything good about the basic Sazerac 6 Year turned up to 11. The entire experience is big and bold, yet it still manages to be engaging rather than overwhelming. While barrel proof whiskeys can sometimes be unduly harsh and require water to properly tame them, this can be comfortably drunk (in small sips) without any discomfort. While TH rye doesn't have the same cachet as the other members of the BTAC, I think it stands on its own quite well and is quite worth the money Buffalo Trace charges for it. You get a superb whiskey in the prime of its life, perfectly poised between fiery youth and gentler age.

In the interest of science, I also tried TH rye watered down to 45% and 50% ABV, in much the same fashion as my experiment with Macallan Cask Strength.

45% Dilution

Nose: noticeably lighter, rye grain most prominent, hot multigrain breakfast cereal, vanilla, slightly musty, a hint of fruit

Taste: seems very young, lots of sweet grain, very smooth, oak only shows up near the back along with some bittersweet chocolate and a drying sensation

Finish: vanilla, grain, a touch of oak, somewhat bitter

50% Dilution

Nose: still grainy, but less so, multigrain cereal, orange peel, vanilla, creamier, a little soapy

Taste: about halfway between the 45% and full strength - still grainy, but creamier - especially mid-palate, more alcohol attack at the back of the mouth, slightly woody - but not tannic, a bit of stewed fruit, a little chocolate, more body than 45%

Finish: fruit, grain, residual heat/black pepper

What I find most interesting about these dilutions is how much more youthful the whiskey seems at lower strength. It's all about the grain and the wood seems to be fighting a losing battle to instill some maturity. This is in marked contrast to the full strength whiskey, which seems mature beyond its years.

I think this just goes to show that barrels have to be picked for bottling with their final strength in mind. Some will shine straight out of the barrel, with undiluted character. Others will take more water to reveal their best face. And just because it's good at one strength doesn't mean that more or less water will make it better. Once again, I tip my hat to the master blenders who have the skill to recognize how whiskeys can be refashioned into a harmonious whole.

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