For many, alcohol is that thing you drink quickly and heavily to boost confidence or simply make an ass of yourself. For some, however, the well-crafted spirit is a work of art, as rewarding for its complexity as it is for the slight euphoric buzz it instils upon the brain. It is for those latter qualities that we introduce you our “Spirit of the Month” Series, i.e. a new spirit each month offering distinguished taste by way of unmistakable craft and expertise.
Without further ado, we present Rittenhouse Rye from Heaven Hill Distillery as our debut Spirit of the Month. Read on for some background, tasting notes, and a brief Q&A with Heaven Hill Brand Ambassador Bernie Lubbers.
The history of Rittenhouse Rye is rich, broad and all encompassing, so much so that it nearly encompasses the history of rye whisky itself. For that we go back to the early settlement of the northeast USA and the discovery of rye, a sturdy grain that could survive the changing seasons. And what was the first thing those early settlers thought to do with that rye? Make whisky of course! What? You thought they were going to like bake bread or something? Okay, they probably did that too.
Those early settlers would soon find out that rye created a whisky rather unique in character. More specifically, they found that Pennsylvania rye whisky was spicy in profile while Maryland rye whisky tended to have grassier notes. Both got the job done and then some, so soon after its cultivation rye whisky became the drink of choice for the region.
Jump ahead to the Prohibition Act of 1920. The sale and consumption of liquor was banned in the USA, which presumably led to unprecedented amounts of drinking as well as the rise of bootleggers and criminals. Yeah, nice going prohibition. Thankfully, America came to its senses in 1933 and prohibition was repealed. That opened the floodgates for distilleries and in Pennsylvania the Continental Distilling Corporation of Philadelphia was formed. The first objective at hand was to build a monolithic distillery that could make up to 20,000 cases of liquor per day.
In 1934, Rittenhouse Square Straight Rye Whisky debuted after being aged 2 years, and it became the go-to Pennsylvania rye whisky of choice. Wait, wait–let’s do that math for a second. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Rittenhouse emerged in 1934 offering whisky that was aged 2 years. Hmmm…sounds like someone had a little underground operation going.
As the years passed Rittenhouse upped the aging on its rye whisky from 2 years to 4 (and even 5 years in the early to mid 1940s). They would also undergo various changes in label design. In 1948 they dropped the “Square” from their name to become Rittenhouse Rye. Meanwhile, every single ounce of their product remained 100 proof and “bottled in bond”, meaning a much stricter degree of regulation (read the interview below for more details).
During WWII Rittenhouse encountered major obstacles ranging from having their distillery repurposed by the government to facing inventory shortages, but they stood their ground and stayed in business. Unfortunately, even after the war their struggles were far from over whereas the following decades saw a significant decline in the popularity of rye whisky. The brand was saved from the brink of extinction after being purchased by Heaven Hill Distillery in the 1990s.
Cut to 2016 and whisky is back with a vengeance and that includes rye whisky. Craft distilleries are literally popping up over night to cash in on the craze. Meanwhile, Rittenhouse is more popular than ever before thanks to a remarkable taste and unbeatable price point. Clearly showing it hasn’t forgotten its roots, Rittenhouse is still bottled in bond, still 100 Proof, and still aged 4 years. The brand even recently changed its label back to a “diamond shape” in honour of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square and the original Rittenhouse Square Rye Whisky label.
History aside, the true legacy of Rittenhouse Rye comes by way of a totally uncompromised flavour profile heralded by experts and casual enthusiasts alike. This spirit is kind of like a great Martin Scorsese movie in that it achieves customer satisfaction completely on its own terms, striking a cord through an inherent ability to please palates instead of pandering to trends. Read virtually any blog or talk to anyone who knows his/her whisky and you’ll very quickly discover that Rittenhouse Rye is one of the most consistently acclaimed spirits in the world. It often sells out as soon as it hits the shelves not just because of the value or scarcity, but also because every bartender who knows anything about rye whisky immediately snatches it up for his bar or restaurant.
Giving Rittenhouse even more exclusive appeal is almost unparalleled versatility for this price range. Every drop is rife with an eye-opening combination of sweetness and spiciness that’s hard to find elsewhere. Yes, the burn is present at the end but not to the point of overpowering or negating the whisky’s flavourful essence. Because Rittenhouse flaunts such an array of rewarding notes it’s also the perfect base for a liquor-forward cocktail such as a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Sazerac.
Here’s a personal tasting breakdown (results may vary depending on palate):
Appearance: An alluring shade of reddish amber or mahogany. It’s almost like you can taste the whisky before you open the bottle.
Nose: A luxurious sweetness leaps out right away–the scent of dark cherries marinating in vanilla–followed by oak, spice and some of those 100 Proof vapors.
Taste: Lush notes of dark fruit and vanilla laced with ample spice hit my tongue instantaneously and more spice bursts forward milliseconds later. That balanced interplay between sweet and spicy stays the course as long as the whisky is still swirling in my mouth. When an ice cube is added, the spicier qualities mellow out while the sweetness takes on a slight, syrupy texture. The ice also brings some notes of liquorice or anise to surface.
Finish: Rittenhouse is 100 Proof and for me that only becomes apparent upon swallowing. There’s definitely some burn at the end but as previously mentioned it’s not abrasive or overpowering, merely detectable. Present along with the alcohol are warm notes of honey and of course plenty of spicy rye. An ice cube definitely chips away at the heat and makes for a somewhat smoother finish however I personally prefer the drink neat and don’t mind those savoury fumes at all.
In summary, Rittenhouse Rye is a spirit firing on nearly all cylinders. It might lack overt citrus elements (in my opinion) but that works to its advantage, allowing notes of oak, spice, vanilla, honey and dark cherry to dominate when sipped neat, while some added components of liquorice emerge when you toss in an ice cube. This is quite simply a legendary pour with a price that can’t be beat, and anyone who takes liquor seriously must taste Rittenhouse Rye as soon as humanly possible. Cheers!
Heaven Hill Distillery is a privately owned distillery that like Rittenhouse is steeped in tradition with roots going all the way back to the 1930s. They’re most well known for Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and Rittenhouse but that’s just a sampling of their portfolio. On the distilling side of things at Heaven Hill is the father/son duo of Parker and Craig Beam along with Charlie Downs and Denny Potter. Parker Beam’s father Earl was the previous master distiller and Earl’s cousin Harry was the master distiller before that. Harry’s father was Joseph L. Beam (cousin to Jim Beam), the original master distiller at Heaven Hill. Overseeing sales and marketing at Heaven Hill is the Shapira family. Like the Beams, the Shapiras can trace their lineage all the way back to the company’s origins. In other words, Heaven Hill is big on tradition, so much so that they refer to Denny Potter as the “new kid” even though he’s been around for just under 20 years.
Serving as American Whisky Brand Ambassador at Heaven Hill is Bernie Lubbers. We had the chance to ask Bernie a few questions. Read on for his responses:
Is it correct that Rittenhouse Rye is only released in limited quantities at certain points in the year? Will that trend continue?
The popularity of rye whiskey caught almost everyone by surprise, and it did Heaven Hill as well. However, we are family owned and therefore nimbler than most other companies, so we responded to the trend and started producing more rye whiskey each year. It used to be distilled only once a year, and now we distill it in each and every month! Allocations hit markets twice a year, but there haven’t been any major problems with shortages or outages in the past couple years.
Has the process or recipe for Rittenhouse Rye changed at all over the decades (aside from the aging going up from 2 to 4 years)?
We have owned the brand since the early 1990’s and have made it the same way since we have had the brand. It is a traditional American rye whiskey recipe with a good amount of corn in it. We have kept the rye content around the minimum of the 51% and we do dial up the barley malt a couple percent since the high amount of rye requires more enzymes to convert those starches in to fermentable sugar.
How does Rittenhouse differ from the other Heaven Hill Ryes?
We only have one other rye whiskey at Heaven Hill, and that’s Pikesville. Pikesville is the same whiskey, but different ages and proof. There is a 3 year old 80 proof version (available only in the Maryland area) and a 6 year old 110 proof Pikesville. Of course, this varies from Rittenhouse which is a 4 year old 100 proof Bottled in Bond.
That Bottled in Bond component is nothing to be glossed over. It is what makes Rittenhouse a stand out. The Bottled in Bond designation carries the most restrictions of any other spirits. In order to be classified Bottled In Bond, it must be:
– Composed of the same kind of spirits produced from the same materials.
– Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery
– Stored for at least 4 years in wooden containers
– Reduced in proof by the addition of pure water only to 100 degrees of proof
– The label shall bear the real name of the distillery, and the plant number in which produced it, and the plant number in which bottled it.
Can you walk me through the process of distilling Rittenhouse Rye from grain to bottling?
Distilling rye is no different than distilling any other whiskey. Although rye is a difficult grain to work with, so you have to be extremely careful or your fermenters will bubble over and foam like crazy. You grind the grains into a fine flour, then add them to water and cook them to release the starches. Barley malt is added to convert those starches to sugar and then it is sent to a fermenter where yeast is added to make a low alcohol “distillers beer”.
After a few days of fermenting, that beer is pumped in to a still which separates the water from the alcohol and then we distill it once more to increase the alcohol content and boil of the undesired fusel oils and clean it up, so to speak. Then, only pure water is added to get it to barreling strength of 125 proof and it’s put into a brand new charred oak barrel and put up in to one of our aging warehouses on the top 4 floors.
After 4 years, it’s pulled out and dumped with a couple hundred other barrels, and only pure water is added to get it down to the bottling strength of 100 proof (50% alcohol) and it’s bottled and labeled. In the case of Rittenhouse Rye, which is Bottled in Bond, we have to make sure all those barrels we select for bottling were filled in the same distilling season which is either the Spring (January through June) or Fall (which is July through December).
What gives Rittenhouse that wonderful color?
All of the color in Rittenhouse (and any whiskey for that matter) comes from the brand new charred oak barrels we use. We use a Number 3 Char for all of our whiskeys, and then we store our rye whiskey in traditional 7 story wood/tin Rickhouses. All of our rye whiskey is stored on the 4th floor and higher, so that results with those barrels getting more movement of the whiskey in the wood, and accelerating the aging process slightly and imparting more complex flavors in the final product.
How has the current whiskey explosion affected operations at Heaven Hill?
That is clearly evident as we are currently under the second expansion of our main distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. Our current annual total whiskey production is 300,000 barrels, and starting next summer, after this current expansion, that will increase to 400,000 barrels annually. We also have completed construction of 2 additional 55,000 barrel Rickhouses, and will be building at least one new Rickhouse each year for the next ten years!
Is there one particular story from Rittenhouse’s rich past that you would like to share?
If you look at the label of Rittenhouse Rye, there is what some people call a “diamond” on it. That is not a diamond however, but a square. Rittenhouse Rye was originally named Rittenhouse Square Rye, named after David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia. Renowned as being a leading astronomer, clockmaker and inventor; he also served as the first Director of the U.S. Mint in Philidelphia. Rittenhouse Square is in the center of the city and visited by thousands of people each year, and that square on the label represents David Rittenhouse, and our country’s early history.
What outside brands do the master distillers sip on when not sipping on Rittenhouse?
Everyone always asks which brands we drink that are not our own. The simple answer is we all like to drink what we make. When we do drink someone else’s whiskey, it is when you are with other distillers/ambassadors, and you drink what they make out of respect.
We all have favorites. Parker is partial to his Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrel Bourbon. Craig likes Bernhiem Wheat Whiskey (since he created it in 2001). Charlie likes Elijah Craig 18 year old Single Barrel, and Denny likes Elijah Craig 12 year old Barrel Proof Bourbon. My favorite is our Henry McKenna 10 year old Single Barrel, and just like Rittenhouse, it is also a Bottled in Bond Whiskey.
As a pioneering brand that’s been around since right after Prohibition and experienced virtually every high and low the industry can throw at you, do you have any words of advice for the slew of emerging craft distilleries around the country/world?
I’ve heard Parker Beam and almost every distiller always say that the one thing a distiller needs more than anything is patience. If you rush anything, it will always be compromised. So be patient and learn your craft all the while.
Favorite cocktail using Rittenhouse Rye?
Rittenhouse makes a great Old Fashioned, and a great Manhattan. But my favorite is the classic Sazerac Cocktail, which I think really put rye whiskey on the stage back in the mid 1800’s in New Orleans when French cognac became harder to find and too expensive to use, so they switched to rye whiskey.
Any upcoming changes/announcements in the pipeline?
Last year we launched Pikesville Rye Whiskey 6 year old, 110 proof off of our Rittenhouse line. Jim Murray named it the #2 whiskey in the world, and several other magazines and outlets named it the Best Rye Whiskey of the Year, so that was nice! Since it takes years of putting up inventory and making sure you have ample supply for the U.S. and the world wide market, I wouldn’t expect to see another rye whiskey from us, and really with gems like Pikesville, and Rittenhouse, why would you need something else?
I travel the world with Heaven Hill promoting our whiskeys. I’ve been to Germany, France, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, the U.K. and Canada, and everyone asks about Rittenhouse Rye. I think it’s safe to say that Rittenhouse is the most sought after and respected rye whiskey in the world!