Whiskey Review: McKenzie Rye Whiskey

New York is a pretty cold place at times, particularly in central and upstate regions. So it makes sense that, just like it’s neighbor to the north, Canada, there’s a good amount of rye grains being grown in the state. Finger Lakes Distillery is taking full advantage of this, using locally sourced rye grains to produce this truly local New York craft distilled rye.


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History

The Finger Lakes Distillery started thanks to a chance meeting between two McKenzies: Brian McKenzie and Thomas Earl McKenzie (who are not actually related to each other in any way) met at a craft distiller’s conference in 2007. Brian was a banker from upstate New York, and Thomas was a brewer and winemaker from Alabama. Combined, they had all the experience they needed to open the business and they decided on opening their distillery in the heart of New York wine country just on the shore of Seneca Lake.

Following in the footsteps of other craft distilleries in New York, they decided to go the “farm distillery” route, in which the majority of their raw materials are sourced from the state of New York. Thanks to their location in the wine producing Finger Lakes region of the state, they have not only been able to distill the usual whiskies, but they have also taken to making grape-based products such as brandy, grappa, and liqueurs.

Product

As a craft New York distillery, its required that the majority of the raw materials come from New York farms. In this case, the raw materials used are 80% rye grain, with a heaping helping of 20% malted barley to try and smooth things out.

These grains are cooked and fermented to create a slightly alcoholic beer, which is then distilled in their column still to create the new make rye whiskey. From there, the spirit is aged in charred oak barrels until it is properly matured and ready for bottling.

Packaging

This bottle design is a pretty standard one we’ve seen from other distilleries, but it’s one that I do like. The body is roughly cylindrical in shape, with a rounded shoulder, and a medium length neck. That bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.

What is somewhat unique is the labeling they used here. There are actually three labels: one main label around the belly of the bottle, one around the neck, and a small stamp-like one at the bottom with the majority of the legally required information about the contents. Its a nifty setup which still leaves an acceptable amount of transparency to see the whiskey itself — but despite all of these labels, there’s very little information actually communicated. In my opinion, this label concept just isn’t unique or useful enough to outweigh how much of the body of the bottle they are obscuring.

Neat

The number one aroma coming off of this glass is vanilla. There’s some brown sugar in the background adding some sweetness, but it’s definitely a vanilla-forward whiskey. There is also a touch of an herbal note in there as well — it came off as mint in the bourbon, but in this case I think it’s definitely more of a fresh basil.

Taking a sip, typical of a rye whiskey, the black pepper spice is definitely large and in charge. That dark and spicy flavor is the first thing that comes across your tongue, followed by the vanilla and brown sugar. Sipping this neat, the black pepper definitely leaves a slightly bitter taste on the roof of your mouth and lasts through the finish, but the brown sugar does put up a good fight to try and balance it out.

On Ice

Ice tends to be a good thing for overly dark or bitter spirits, and this case is no exception. Now, there’s just a hint of the bitterness from that rye content that made sipping this neat a touch unpleasant — thanks to the added ice, that problem disappears… which is the good news.

The bad news is that the herbal note has disappeared as well. Lighter flavors tend to get erased when you add some ice… meaning that what previously made this rye unique is no longer present. You might be able to see just a glimmer of that flavor if you really squint, but it isn’t nearly as prominent as it once was.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

Personally, I rely pretty heavily on both rye whiskies and richer, darker bourbons to make most of my cocktails. For me, I appreciate that the flavors they bring to the table tend to come through clearly despite whatever I throw at them. That’s no different here, with that spicy black pepper flavor, the brown sugar, and the vanilla all coming together to balance nicely with the angostura bitters for a good cocktail.

One thing I’ll note is that, as we saw when taken neat, this is in fact a touch bitter — so you probably do want to add some sugar to the cocktail to really make it shine.

Fizz (Mule)

There’s two things that I look for in a good mule: I need it to be well balanced, and I need it to be unique in some way compared to a vodka mule.

In terms of the balance, this is pretty good. The brown sugar and vanilla aspects balance out the bright and bitter ginger nicely, leaving a cocktail that you could sip all day long. There’s even a little depth and richness to the flavors that make it a little darker than usual, which I quite enjoyed.

That said, despite being a rye, there isn’t a whole lot of that black pepper spice or other unique flavors coming through the drink. In other versions of a rye whiskey mule, I usually see a good kick of spice on the end that adds a unique texture, but in this case I just don’t see it. This certainly isn’t a deal killer… just a slight disappointment.


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Overall Rating

What we have here is a good, middle-of-the-road rye whiskey, which operates just as well as you’d expect any other rye whiskey. There’s some good spice in here, some good flavors, and it makes some nice cocktails.

The edge that this has over the competition is that herbal note that I’m picking up from the spirit, which is a unique aspect that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It adds just that little extra bit of mystery and complexity. Then again, there’s also a bit of bitterness that creeps in at times, which is a slight tarnish on an otherwise great record.

In the end, on balance, it tips the scales ever so slightly in the positive direction. There’s more nifty things going on here than there are detractors, and I don’t regret for one second picking up this bottle in the first place.

Finger Lakes Distilling McKenzie Rye Whiskey
Production Location: New York, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45.5% ABV
Price: $40.99 / 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: 3.5/5
You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have a pretty good rye whiskey.


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