Like wine and beer, whisky is a broad banner that breaks down into a number of types, with each type abiding by certain industry regulations. For whisky, most of those regulations revolve around aging, proofing and the mashbill, aka the base ingredients that are then distilled. Bourbon, for example, has a mashbill that must contain at least 51% corn and the spirit itself must be aged a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels.
Whisky requirements are rigid enough to lend most expressions within a given group a level of discernible consistency, but also flexible enough to allow for plenty of experimentation. In Scotland that experimentation usually has more to do with the barreling, aging, finishing and malt drying process than it does the mashbill, but in places like North America brands are frequently mixing things up on the mashbill in addition to tinkering with virtually every other aspect of the process.
Every now and then, however, a North American whiskey will crank that mashbill up to 100% of one kind of grain in order to achieve the purest representation of the adjoining type. Doing that very thing and then tossing in some serious aging is Lock, Stock & Barrel 16 Year Straight Rye Whiskey from Cooper Spirits Company. It’s our spirit of the month and it’s fantastic. Read on for some history and tasting notes.
Cooper Spirits Company is named for Rob Cooper, a pioneer who achieved meteoric success after introducing St. Germain elderflower liqueur to the world just as the craft cocktail craze was exploding. If you drink in public, you’ve probably tried a cocktail that uses St. Germain and you definitely recognize the bottle, which hosts a perfectly executed vintage design. In fact the bottle flaunts such a timeless vibe you could easily tell someone that St. Germain has been around for over a century and from a cursory glance that person wouldn’t know the difference; in no small way does that play into the larger branding mission over at Cooper Spirits.
It’s not hyperbole to call the now ubiquitous St. Germain a game-changer that revived liqueurs in general, and needless to say Cooper could’ve retired on the strength of his accomplishment. Instead, he continued to explore and release, straddling a limited range of spirits but a full spectrum of concept in the process. At one end of the spectrum you had flavour-forward entries like St. Germain and Crème Yvette (a resurrected French berry liqueur) along with the popular cocktail-in-a-bottle known as Hochstadter’s Slow and Low, while at the other end you had much more direct offerings like this month’s featured spirit: Lock, Stock & Barrel 16 Year Straight Rye Whiskey.
Lock, Stock & Barrel 16 Year Straight Rye is Cooper’s testament to serious, straightforward drinking. The spirit is part two of a batch that was first released as a 13 year, with Cooper holding onto select barrels to see what a few extra years of aging would do. Between the aging and the mashbill of 100% rye, Lock Stock & Barrel is a rare beast that highlights premium rye whiskey for its most essential charms.
The spirits industry was dealt a significant blow in April of 2016 when Rob Cooper passed away suddenly. He’s fondly remembered as a visionary by the many people who knew him. Entailed in Rob’s efforts was not just a galvanised emphasis on liqueurs, but also a renewed appreciation for the classic history of spirits in general. We raise a glass to Rob and his living legacy.
Rye whiskey is commonly associated with a grainy, spicy, firm flavour that becomes more unmistakable the more rye there is in the mashbill and the more you drink it. Personally, I find that the greatest signifiers of rye usually come toward the end of a given sip, as a very noticeable and distinct bouquet of spice, oak and light bitterness emerge from the body of the spirit. For some reason I constantly associate the flavour of rye with citrus peel because of its dry, lightly fruity, mildly bitter character, which contrasts from the smooth and sweet qualities of something like bourbon.
But don’t mistake words like “bitterness” or “dryness” as critiques–rye offers a delightful full-bodied taste that might take a little adjusting to but offers its own set of rewards. Because of its drier qualities, rye whisky also usually makes for a terrific Manhattan whereas the Sweet Vermouth enables a palatable and remarkable sense of balance.
Lock, Stock & Barrel 16 Year Straight Rye Whiskey is double distilled in copper pot stills, unfiltered and aged in newly charred American oak barrels, and served in a bottle that looks straight out of the post-prohibition era. Just for the record, the distillate itself supposedly comes from Alberta, Canada, a hot topic of discussion among whiskey connoisseurs who take brands to task over what’s often deemed to be misleading marketing techniques. I don’t get too hung up on the discussion because for starters we live in a capitalistic world where brands have to pursue any advantage possible if they want to succeed, let alone survive (sure, Cooper Spirits isn’t exactly struggling but the point remains). In other words, you have companies like Jack Daniels lobbying to keep competitors out of Tennessee entirely and you want some newcomer to play nice when it comes to marketing? The point is that as long as the mashbill and aging statements are accurate, and the brand doesn’t go to certain extremes in terms of backstory (which some brands are known to do), I’m more concerned with the taste than anything else. With that in mind, here are the tasting notes:
Nose – On the nose comes a flood of citrus peel, namely orange and grapefruit, that’s rounded out by notes of cherry, vanilla, oak and spice. There’s a slight floral quality to the nose as well–a pleasant but elusive aroma that comes and goes.
Taste: A rush of warm sweetness greets my palate with notes of vanilla and cherry–it’s most present at the start and quickly segues into a bounty of spice, oak, dried fruit, grain and citrus peel. The spirit is definitely full-bodied, with flavours coming and going as it swirls in my mouth.
Finish – More warmth on the finish and then loads of spice. There are also notes of oak and tobacco and grain. At the very end comes a distinct bitterness that gets more palatable the more I drink. By the time the bottle is half-empty, the bitterness is duly welcomed by my taste buds.
Overall, Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year Straight Rye Whiskey goes big on spice and grain, layered by elements of sweetness that sway between prominent and subtle depending on what stage the tasting is in. At the finish came some notes that are somewhat hard to describe, perhaps again best summarised by citrus peel, or a firm, dry combination of fruit, grain and mild bitterness. It’s a flavour that tells you without a doubt you’re drinking rye, and 100% rye at that. This is a full-bodied stunner that will definitely please fans of rye whiskey and maybe even convert a few fence sitters.