Whiskey Reviews: Far North Rye Whiskeys

Editor’s Note: These whiskeys were provided to us as review samples by Far North Spirits. This in no way, per our editorial policiesinfluenced the final outcome of this review. It should also be noted that by clicking the buy links in this article our site receives a small referral payment which helps to support, but not influence, our editorial and other costs.

Far North is looking to create a Minnesota-rye style. The area is perfect for it, much like Pennsylvania was for the original rye distillers. The Red River Valley, where Far North is located, has some of the most fertile soil on earth. The brutally cold climate of the northernmost distillery in the continental United States is actually a boon for rye, rather than a hindrance. Far North creates small batch, high-rye whiskeys that could fully well be on the way to defining their own style.

The rye that goes into most expressions is AC Hazlet Winter Rye. Far North places huge emphasis on their distillery being home-grown and sustainable, and that includes their grains. With the exception of malted barley, the distillery grows and processes all of their own whiskey grain, and chooses grains with sustainable qualities. According to Far North, this varietal holds its own against weeds and “lodging,” a tendency to bow over in harsh weather. The distillery has also found it to be spicier in the whiskey, with vanilla notes and “finishes fat.”

Far North isn’t working with just the one rye though. The Seed Vault series is an expansion of the entire estate-grown project. Far North spent three years performing a study on rye varietals to evaluate the growing capabilities of each one in the state of Minnesota, as well as their use in whiskey. Each expression solely reflects a unique varietal, is produced in limited quantities, and released in even more limited locations. The Musketeer varietal I’m looking at today is an open-pollinator created in Canada in 1981.    

In talking with head distiller and co-founder Mike Swanson, he discussed the future of this project. The different rye varietals will still be used, but on a basis of one per year, and a lot more of it. If all goes well, Swanson is hoping that the next batch of the Musketeer expression will produce 600 cases. His ideal for the project results is that it will bring attention and focus to these base ingredients of whiskey production. 

Another unique process Far North is exploring is solera aging. The solera system is a process of “fractional blending” – a succession of barrels are aged side-by-side, with product from newer barrels replenishing that of older barrels when needed, blending new and old product in a continuous cycle.

Quite obviously, the key to this system is age. To achieve this sort of blending takes years, the more the better. According to Swanson, he’d had the idea when they were putting the distilling operation together. However, Swanson also said that “I have stubbornness issues, so I wanted to make my solera with all my own whiskey.”

The oldest whiskey in this bottle is the Roknar Minnesota Six-Year (which is a finalist for the 2021 Good Food Awards). The plan, though not set in stone by any means, is to keep this as the oldest barrel in the system. Swanson also plans for this release to be annual, or possibly biennial. 

It’s clear that Far North started from the desire of being exceptional (so much so that they even got legendary Dave Pickerell involved), and that the many future endeavors in the works will be no different. 

Roknar Rye Whiskey

Roknar Minnesota Rye Whiskey (image via Far North Spirits)

Tasting Notes: Roknar Minnesota Rye

Vital Stats:  Proofed upon bottling, Cask Strength, Single Barrel, Aged 16 months in 15-gallon charred oak barrel and finished in Cognac casks, Mash Bill: 80% AC Hazlet winter rye, 10% heirloom corn, 10% malt barley, 750ml, $53

Appearance: Dull pale yellow but reddish in light  

Nose: A brief moment of brown sugar sweetness moves into dried fruit, particularly prune, with an agave spirit-like vegetal quality throughout 

Palate: Slightly viscous with a warm start. Again, has flavors in common with agave spirits. Broccoli mixes with sweet turpentine, vegetal again but not bitter, moving into cereal grains on the back palate with a cauliflower finish.

Score: 4.5/5

Tasting Notes: Roknar Solera Aged Rye

Vital Stats: Cask Strength, Aged 6 years and under 

Appearance: Very bright, yam orange with ruby hue

Nose: Quite cloying, begins with banana and bubblegum, becoming cream cheese frosting.

Palate: Rich, cloying sweetness carries over from nose, quickly becomes more palatable with burnt marshmallow and spicy cinnamon, then finishes with pain au chocolate. 

Score: 4/5

Tasting Notes: Roknar 100% Rye Seed Vault Series

Vital Stats: 94 Proof, Single Barrel, Aged just under two years in 15-gallon charred oak barrel, Mash Bill: 100% Musketeer Rye, 750ml, Very Limited Release in MN and NY 

Appearance: Murky brown with an amber tint, clearer gold with light through it.

Nose: Bright bubblegum, with notes of cork and rubber

Palate: Cereal grains and woodiness become toasted wheat, fresh but lightly bitter, a hint of passionfruit, and then celery on the back palate. 

Score: 4.5/5

Final Thoughts: I’ve always firmly believed that terroir impacts whiskey, and these expressions serve to make that belief even more firm. Nothing tastes like these. 

The Solera Aged whiskey is a brilliant showcase of a range of their rye expressions, and best exemplifies what they mean by finishing fat. I found it a bit too sweet for casual drinking, but think it has huge potential as a dessert drink or even for cocktailing.

The Seed Vault steers a complete opposite direction with vegetal earthiness, as does the flagship Roknar, though the two are quite distinct from each other. All three are great examples of the differences varietals can make.

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