Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Large Monongahela Rye (circa 1918)

There are dusties and then there are dusties. Most of the dusties I find languishing on the shelf at the corner store date back to the 1980s or, at the earliest, the late 1970s. Today, we go back further, much further to a whiskey released in 1918. Yes, 1918. Do you remeber 1918? Woodrow Wilson was president, World War I came to an end, Babe Ruth was a pitcher for the Red Sox and, unbeknownst to the citizenry, the United States only had a few years left of legal drinking.

Back then, American whiskey usually meant rye whiskey, and Old Monongahela Pennsylvania style rye was one of the major categories of rye. It's hard to find information about the rye of that era, but from what I gather, it contained a much higher percentage of rye than today's Kentucky rye whiskeys, which tend to have close to the minimum of 51% rye. Monongahela rye also usually combined malted and unmalted rye. [EDIT: See the comments by Pennsylvania whiskey expert Sam Komlenic which indicate that by the twentieth century, Pennsylvania rye was no longer using rye malt but barley malt in combination with the unmalted rye].

The Large Distillery was a major producer of rye whiskey in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. According to the excellent history at the John and Linda Lipman site, after prohibition, the distillery was sold to National Distillers, which retired the Large label and used the distillery to make whiskey for another Pennsylvania rye the company had purchased: Old Overholt. National eventually sold the distillery and it was no longer distilling by the 1950s.

Well, thanks to a very generous friend, I've got a small piece of this liquid history to sample. This Large Rye is bottled in bond. It was distilled in fall 1913 and bottled in spring 1918. I don't see a proof on the bottle, but as a BIB, it would be 100 proof.

Large Monongahela Pure Rye Whiskey, 50% abv.

The nose is very musty, like an old antique shop. (old bottle effect?) There is polished leather and an underlying spiciness but not similar to the rye spice I know from today’s ryes, also some pine and floral notes. On the palate, I am again struck by how very unlike today’s ryes this is. It's very dry and musky, like old fashioned shave soap and polished wood, ending on a sort of peppery note with some nuttiness. The finish may be the best part of the whole experience, lingering with a sandalwood scent.

This is wonderfully different from anything around today. It’s dry and spicy but much more fragrant than today's ryes; the spice notes are less in the realm of cooking spices and more in the realm of wood, soap and subtle cologne. Fascinating stuff. It definitely transports me back, back to an old drug store with a polished wooden bar. I can almost hear the barbershop quartet.

Is it good? I'm not sure I would say that. Honestly, it's so different from today's whiskeys that it's hard to compare. If this liquid had come out of a modern bottle, I would probably thing something was dreadfully wrong, the style being so dramatically different, though the more I drink it, the more I like it. And of course, I have no idea how it would measure up to other Old Monongahela style ryes from a century ago, but what's life without a little bit of mystery.


sam k said...

A beautiful bottle of old rye, but I'm sorry that it may have made its journey in less than pristine condition. Old bottles can be very hit or miss, depending on the conditions under which they were stored for many decades.

I have found them to vary from awful to sublime, and it's pretty much a crap shoot. Fill level is not necessarily a good indicator of condition. Basement bottles keep better than attic finds. I think older whiskeys oxidize more quickly once they've been opened, too, so that could affect the spirit over time.

The Monongahela ryes were definitely much deeper in texture and mood, and present themselves differently then today's rye whiskeys, but they still have an incredible and immediate appeal when they've been well kept.

Also, I have to say that there may have been 100% rye whiskeys in the earlier, more agrarian days of American distilling, but once commercial production kicked in, the mashbill of almost every Monongahela rye consisted of 80-95% rye and 5-20% malt. Every distillery in Pennsylvania as of 1894 was also using the sweet mash process, though that could have changed as the 20th century dawned.

Thanks for your insight, Sku. I'll be sending something along for relative comparison.

sku said...

Sam, you're absolutely right that condition on these old whiskeys is tough to judge. I'm told this one had a good fill level but who knows how it was stored for all that time.

When you say 5-20% malt do you mean barley malt or rye malt?

Greg said...

Ok, ok...that's one I don't have. You win!

sam k said...

Barley malt. There was no rye malt used by the late 19th century. Monongahela rye as it was known in its heyday used mostly rye and a little bit of barley with few, if any, exceptions.

sam k said...

P.S. Until a year or so ago, I had an example of Large rye from the same time period that was stunning, hence my thought that this one was not an exceptional specimen.

sku said...

Thanks for the great info. Sam. I updated the post to reflect your comments about the mashbill.

Unknown said...

Very cool! My paternal grandmother is a Large. She and some other family members have some old (empty) bottles knocking around and I've always been curious how the stuff tasted. It's crazy to think that some of it would have survived for so long.