Whiskey Review: Albany Distilling Co. Ironweed Empire Rye Whiskey

I’m a sucker for a good rye whiskey, and especially one from my home state of New York. There’s something about the depth of the flavors and the complexity of the texture that a rye can pull off that makes me really excited, and as a result I usually have at least one bottle of rye whiskey on my shelf at all times. Upstate New York distiller Albany Distilling Co. is new (to me, at least), and having recently purchased a bottle of their rye whiskey, I couldn’t wait to give it a spin.


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History

The story of the Albany Distilling Co. starts roughly the same way most bad ideas start: as a drunken exuberance. As the story goes, co-founders Matthew Jager and John Curtin — both teachers by trade — were drinking at the Albany Pump Station when they had a sudden and undeniable urge to open their own bar. After sobering up a bit, they decided to not open a bar… and instead open a distillery.

Founded in 2011, the Albany Distilling Co. follows in the footsteps of other New York craft distilleries by using locally sourced ingredients to make their spirits. When asked in 2012 about whether the duo had any concerns about opening a distillery without any industry experience, Curtin replied “Almost nobody in New York State has made whiskey before, if they have, most of them were breaking the law — or lying about it.”

As for the location of their distillery, the stars seem to have aligned on that one. After having little luck finding a good location and lamenting that fact loudly at the Albany Pump Station, the bartender overheard them and offered a 1,500 square foot space adjacent to the building that just happened to have been Albany’s original first distillery (and whose equipment is on display at the New York State museum) prior to prohibition.

The business did well, opening a second location in the nearby town of Troy in 2015 (which unfortunately has since closed) and expanding to a new location in Albany.

Jager left the company in 2014 to found another distillery called Yankee Distillers in an area north of Albany, and Rick Sicari stepped in as co-owner. Curtin and Sicari remain the co-owners of the distillery to this day and continue cranking out craft spirits in Albany, New York.

Product

Albany Distilling Co’s line of whiskey is titled “Ironweed” after the Pulizer Prize winning book of the same title by William Kennedy. (The novel features a drunken Albany native during the Great Depression and was adapted into an Oscar nominated film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in 1987.)

This whiskey starts off with a grain bill of 100% locally sourced New York grains — specifically, a combination of 75% rye and 25% malted wheat. The large rye content is typical for a rye whiskey (a minimum of 51% is required here) but the malted wheat is actually interesting. Having a high proportion of wheat is somewhat trendy these days, and the malting process adds some interesting enzymes and flavor compounds to the mix. Those grains are milled on-site (not a common practice for small distilleries, which makes this pretty notable) before being cooked and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid.

That liquid is then distilled in their column still to create their white dog whiskey, which is then put into charred new oak barrels for a minimum of four years to age. The distillery takes pride in the fact that no additives (besides water for proofing) are used in their bottles, so the color and the flavor in the bottle is exactly what came out of the barrel.

Packaging

The bottle design is simple, but effective.

Starting out with the physical bottle itself, it’s a straightforward shape — a rectangular cross section with a flat face on the front and back and straight walls. There are no curves until you get to the shoulder, where it rounds nicely to a short neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.

I’ve seen bottles like this, but I’ve never seen this specific one before. It reminds me of a simplified version of the Whistle Pig bottle.

That simplified design extends to the label as well, which does a great job of being large enough to grab your attention without covering up the beautiful color of the whiskey inside. Especially for a distillery that takes pride in the fact that they don’t add any coloring to their spirits, this is a great way to showcase that beautiful color. The design is nice and simple, as well. It conveys the information you need to know without being flashy or ostentatious.

Neat

I love the color of this spirit — it’s a dark amber, almost trending towards a rusty brown. The aroma is delicious as well — I immediately get a hit of New York apples, followed by some orange citrus, and then a good bit of brown sugar and vanilla. It’s almost like a candied apple. Around the edges I think I see a bit of dried apricot as well, which is something we saw in the standard straight bourbon that this distillery puts out.

All of those aromas translate directly into the flavor, with one or two minor additions. The apple is large and in charge up front, attenuated by some cherry and dried apricot that give the whiskey a well-saturated fruit component. From there, the brown sugar and vanilla kick in to add some sweetness, and on the finish we get some of that distinctive black pepper that usually accompanies a high rye content spirit.

What I appreciate here is that all of the flavors are in balance right out of the bottle. This is delicious as-is, and the saturation of the flavors seems to set this up nicely for being very useful in cocktails.

On Ice

What’s especially interesting here is that the flavors actually get a bit richer and darker with the addition of some ice. Usually, the ice washes out the flavor profile a bit… but here, it just makes everything stronger. The cherry and dried apricot are now the dominant components, with some apple around the edges and followed up by a lighter version of the brown sugar and vanilla.

I feel like this is slightly unbalanced at this point, but in the right direction. The saturation is still surprisingly good, and there’s a solid, rich base to work with for cocktails.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

That little dash of bitters gives this drink exactly what it needed. The herbal qualities in the bitters provide a nice balance to the darker and richer fruity aspects. While the end result is definitely a richer take on an old fashioned, it doesn’t feel as heavy or weighty as some other versions out there. It stays firmly in the realm of richer and darker fruits without getting into “dark chocolate” territory.

I do feel like without any sugar there’s just slightly too much bitterness, so a touch of simple syrup is probably called for.

Fizz (Mule)

Our policy here at Thirty-One Whiskey is that we buy every bottle we review — we rarely accept hand-outs from distilleries (except where explicitly noted in the review). It keeps us impartial, but it also means that I tend to give away a lot of half-drunk bottles of liquor to my friends in a futile effort to save my liver.

But this bottle didn’t get handed to friends, and (except for the few test cocktails specifically for this review) the majority of the bottle was consumed in the form of a mule. And yes, every single one was delicious.

What I really like in this version of a Kentucky Mule is that not only are those darker fruity notes coming through and providing a delicious balance to the flavor profile, but there’s also a touch of the black pepper spice adding some new texture to the finish. It’s a richer and more flavorful version of a mule, and I loved every sip of it.


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Overall Rating

This is a great example of a well-constructed rye whiskey that won’t break the bank. The flavor profile is on point from the first sip, and even in the most adverse conditions in a cocktail it still performs amazingly well and provides some great flavors to the mix.

Compared to the competition, I think Tuthilltown still takes the title for my favorite New York rye… but Albany Distilling Co. isn’t far behind.

Albany Distilling Co. Ironweed Empire Rye Whiskey
Production Location: New York, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $47.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5
A fruity, delicious rye whiskey that makes balanced, flavorful cocktails.


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2 comments

  1. You listed the mashbill for the bourbon. The rye (no longer Empire apparently) is 75% rye and 25% malted wheat.

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