Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: The Ryes (and Fall) of Jim Beam

As you know if you are a regular reader, rye whiskey is one of my favorite American whiskies. We are in the midst of a rye explosion, and the quality of new ryes I've tasted has been uniformly high. In all my rye reviews, I've scarcely found anything to complain about.

There is no greater sign that rye has arrived than the release of the highly touted (rī)¹ by Jim Beam. Pronounced, we are told on the packaging, "Rye One," this whiskey comes in a tall, sleek bottle fit for a club-friendly vodka drinking crowd. It also comes with a steep $50 price tag.

The reaction of the whiskey connoisseur community to this new release was immediate flagellation of this interloper. We in the American whiskey world are used to bottles with names of people we've never heard of packaged in a manner reminiscent of something that might be served in a nineteenth century saloon. We have no use for sleek packaging and are wary of style over substance, and the advertising copy on (rī)¹ didn't help deter this impression("(rī)¹ is the definition of ultra-premium rye whiskey"; "the smoothest alternative on the cocktail scene"). It's unclear if this reaction reveals a healthy skepticism, a high degree of snobbery, or both. American whiskey expert Chuck Cowdery took on this attitude in his blog, arguing that (rī)¹ is a good cocktail whiskey and "not as superficial as you think."

Personally, I'm skeptical anytime Jim Beam comes out with a new, highly touted product. Beam already has two rye whiskies that run in the $10- $15 range: Jim Beam yellow label and Old Overholt Rye. What is it about this new, fancy rye that merits $40 more than these other Beam ryes?

Well, I picked up a bottle of (rī)¹ along with an Old Overholt to find out. Both are straight rye whiskies. The (rī)¹ is slightly higher in alcohol at 46% vs Old Overholt at 40%. While it usually hovers around $50, I picked up the (rī)¹ at Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys for $38. The Old Overholt put me out $11.99 at the same store. And now the tasting.

Old Overholt: More Sweet Than Rye

Old Overholt is an old Pennsylvania whiskey which moved to Kentucky and is now owned by Beam. It is a four year old whiskey that is about as unhip as you can get, with a picture of old man Overholt on the bottle and the catchy slogan, "Reg. in U.S. Pat. Off."

For a rye, there is surprisingly little rye in the nose of Overholt. I get very subtle notes of hay and grass as well as some banana. The flavor surprises me with its initial sweetness. There are a few rye notes if you hold it in your mouth, but you don't get any real rye spice until the finish. It's an odd rye, almost tasting more like a Jack Daniel's product than any other rye I've had.

(rī)¹: Rye Lite

As noted above, (rī)¹ is slightly higher in alcohol than Overholt. The label suggests serving it on the rocks or "to elevate an otherwise ordinary cocktail," but here at Sku's Recent Eats, we drink our whiskey neat. (rī)¹ has no age statement, which means that it is at least four years old.

(rī)¹ is very light on the nose; as with Overholt, it has some subtle rye tones. The flavor is a bit more rye than Overholt and lacks Overholt's sweetness. Like Overholt though, it fails to deliver much in the way of solid rye flavors. Eventually, if you hold the whiskey in your mouth, you get some dulled rye in it, and there is some in the finish, but it's definitely Rye Lite. This lack of rye spice, including all of that clove, pepper and other spice that make rye whiskey so interesting, is amusing given the bottle booklet's claim that "spice is in." To be fair, though, the label does describe (rī)¹ as having a "slightly spicy, yet lighter rye flavor." I would modify that to read "barely spicy." Overall, (rī)¹ is very similar to Overholt, but less sweet.

Just to give it the benefit of the doubt, I chucked a few ice cubes in a glass and tried some (rī)¹ on the rocks, as per the label's instructions. (With all the instructions, how did they leave out "Do not use as a flotation device"?). The ice dulls the rye flavor and really brings out the sweetness. It's actually not an unpleasant drink on the rocks but it has precious little in common with anything rye.


In the end, I wasn't enthralled with either of these ryes. In fact, these were among the only two ryes I've had that I really didn't care for. If you are not huge on spice but want a subtle, balanced rye for a cocktail, get some of Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Rye or some Rittenhouse 100, and if you want your rye neat and like the spice, you have many excellent choices. If you like things sweet, these Beam ryes may suit you, and if you want to pay a premium for a fancy bottle, (rī)¹ is the one rye for you.


Ryan Murphy said...

Sku, in your review of the ri1 (what a stupid name) you mentioned that as a straight rye whiskey, it must be at least 4 years old. Am I incorrect in thinking that a "straight rye" must have an age of at least 2 years and not 4?


sku said...

Ryan, I can see how the way I wrote it was confusing. You are correct that a straight rye must be at least two years. I was pointing out that the age statement is not listed on the bottle which means it is at least four years old because an American whiskey must include an age statement if it is less than four years old.

I'll try to change it to make it less confusing.


Ryan Murphy said...

Oh, I see. I had forgotten about the lack of age statement meaning it has to be at least 4 years old. Thanks for the reminder!

Unrelated, I cracked my Van Winkle Reserve Rye last night for the first time. Your review is certainly spot on. It's good but not great and certainly worse than other great ryes such as the Handy and Abraham Bowman.