My wife and I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole recently. We started watching a YT channel called How To Drink, and while I don’t always agree with the host on his choice of spirits, his cocktails haven’t led me wrong yet. One bottle he keeps reaching for that I haven’t tried is Rittenhouse Rye, and as a big fan of rye whiskey I figured his recommendation made it worth a try.
Americans love their spirits (well, except for a brief period we don’t speak of in the 1920’s), and over time what is consider the ‘quintessential American spirit’ has shifted. These days, bourbon is the king of the liquor shelf, produced in more varieties than grains of sand on the beach. But before corn became the most popular crop in the United States, rye was the more common grain and rye whiskey the more common spirit. Produced in two general varieties (Pennsylvania style with 100% rye and Maryland style with some corn thrown in for taste), rye whiskey was the most popular spirit prior to prohibition.
After prohibition ended, the Continental Distilling Corporation in Philadelphia, PA was formed to try and restart the Pennsylvania rye whiskey tradition. They named their inaugural rye whiskey after after the famous Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, eventually dropping the “Square” part of the name and becoming simply Rittenhouse Whiskey since 1948.
The Continental Distilling Corporation would see mild success through the years, but they fell victim to the same catastrophic market shift that took out a large swath of other whiskey distilleries in the 1970’s, as the population’s tastes moved towards vodka and clear spirits. The company went out of business in the 1980’s, and Heaven Hill purchased the rights to a number of their brands including Rittenhouse.
Just like the Continental Distilling Corporation, Old Heavenhill Springs Distillery was founded after the end of prohibition in 1935 by a group of investors in Bardstown, Kentucky. One of those investors was well known distiller Joseph L. Beam, first cousin to Jim Beam, who would become the first master distiller of the facility.
As the years went on, the Shapira family bought out all of the other investors to become the sole owner of the business and changed the name to “Heaven Hill Distillery.” Despite being bought out, the descendants of Joseph Beam remain the master distillers of the facility to this day.
Heaven Hill Distillery is currently the biggest family owned distillery in the United States and the second largest holder of bourbon whiskey inventory in the world. Their flagship brands include Deep Eddy vodka and Elijah Craig, and their facility hosts the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.
Heaven Hill deserves more credit than they probably get for keeping the rye tradition going in the United States. Despite its abysmal popularity, they continued producing rye whiskey — sometimes reducing production to a single day per calendar year, but they steadfastly continued to crank it out until sales once again started to pick up steam.
Not much beyond the name has been maintained between the old Pennsylvania-made Rittenhouse and the new Kentucky manufactured spirit from Heaven Hill. Even the mash bill has shifted to a “barely legal” 51% rye, with corn and other undisclosed grains making up the remainder.
Once those grains are cooked and fermented, they are distilled in Kentucky and the newly made whiskey is placed into brand new charred oak barrels. As a “bottled in bond” spirit, those barrels are closely monitored and placed into a warehouse under supervision by U.S. federal agents who ensure that the spirits are not tampered with during aging. There they rest for a minimum of four full years before being extracted and bottled for sale.
Well, it’s a very simple bottle.
Overall, it’s shaped like a standard wine bottle with a straight cylindrical body, curved shoulder, and medium length neck. The bottle is capped off with a plastic screw-on cap.
The label is where things get a little interesting. (And don’t get your hopes up here — emphasis on “a little”.) There’s barely any styling or design to the label beyond a couple flourishes like the diamond shaped border and the little stalks of rye grain peeking up from the bottom. However… despite the lack of grand designs, it still manages to feel like a label design that could have come out of the mid 1930’s.
Simple, straightforward, and easy to read. A little big with the label, but overall not bad.
The first thing I get off this glass is actually an aroma of apples. Definitely some orchard-fruit scents here, blending that apple with some orange, a touch of cherry and rounding it out with a bit of caramel.
Taking a sip, though, this is a dark and rich flavor profile. The very first thing I get is dark chocolate — including the little bit of bitterness that comes with that flavor. Coming in from the sides is a bit of that apple and orange flavor that we were promised from the aroma, and as the dark chocolate subsides the flavors resolve into a nice caramel and vanilla profile.
On the finish, you get all of the hallmarks of a good rye whiskey. There’s the black pepper spice that you’d expect, as well as a good slice of sourdough rye bread with a little honey on top.
This is a rich and powerful experience when taken neat. Some might enjoy that, but others might be looking for the whiskey to take it down a notch. The good news here is that, with the addition of a little bit of ice, we get exactly that desired effect.
There’s still a great level of saturation and richness here, but it isn’t quite as overwhelming. The flavors seem to have rearranged themselves so that the orchard fruit comes first — apples and oranges — followed by some caramel and vanilla for the traditional whiskey barrel aging notes. The dark chocolate still exists and makes itself known near the end — but, thanks to the ice, the richness of the chocolate remains without the bitterness.
Something that is missing, though, is the black pepper spice which is very much toned down (if not completely eliminated) with the added ice.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I like darker and richer cocktails, and that’s exactly what I’m getting here.
There’s an interesting flip-flopping happening here in the flavors. Up front, the bitters are providing some of the depth while the orchard fruits providing some nice sweetness for balance. But as the flavors develop, it’s the rye whiskey that provides the chocolatey richness and the bitters that contribute some herbal balance.
There’s nothing really surprising going on here or anything particularly unique, but it’s a solid, rich, and chocolatey old fashioned.
There’s a reason why darker and richer whiskies are my preference, and that’s because they do some great stuff in cocktails. (This is also probably why the aforementioned How To Drink channel, which specializes in cocktails, prefers Rittenhouse.)
What we have here is a fruitier but simultaneously slightly darker version of a whiskey mule. The apple flavor comes through clear as a bell up front, playing nicely with the ginger beer and making it a delicious experience. And, on the finish, a bit of that black pepper spice makes a comeback adding some complexity to the flavor profile.
Taken neat, this is too much for my own personal taste. It’s powerful and rich. Some people might be all about that… but personally, I think I’ll stick to putting it into cocktails which is where this spirit really shines.
If you’re looking for a good, affordable, and delicious spirit that’s guaranteed to add some dark richness to any cocktail, this is a great choice. I’d just warn that having this all on its own might be flying a little too close to the sun.
|Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond Straight Rye Whiskey
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Straight Rye Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $24.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
It’s rich, delicious, and doesn’t break the bank… and makes a fantastic cocktail to boot.