New Ransom Rye, Barley, Wheat Whiskey Showcases Used Casks

By Amanda Schuster / August 30, 2016
Ransom Rye, Barley, Wheat Whiskey

The new Ransom Rye, Barley, Wheat Whiskey (image via Amanda Schuster)

There is much talk about the effects of oak aging on whiskey in terms of flavor profile, and the general consensus is that older is better. However, much can be said about the aromatic contributions of cooperage, and while maturity is important, the cask itself has to be of good quality to go the distance, or the whiskey suffers.

As a lead up to introducing their new Ransom Rye, Barley, Wheat whiskey, Ransom Spirits Master Distiller Tad Seestedt and his longtime friend and sometimes collaborator, drinks historian David Wondrich, decided to present a unique whiskey tasting experience to a room of media and bartenders at their mutual friend Del Pedro’s place, Tooker Alley in Brooklyn.

A few years back, Wondrich and Seestedt found themselves on a long plane journey and started discussing Irish whiskey history, as one does. It turns out that there is a lost method of producing it using rolled oats (oats that have literally been rolled flat, like the ones in most commercial oat meal) in the mash bill that hasn’t been made since the 1950s. They decided to experiment with an American version of it at Ransom in Oregon. While there is little way of knowing if the whiskey they made tastes the way it did in the old country, they at least knew they had done something special. Now Ransom Emerald 1865 Whiskey, made only once a year in limited production, has become a best-seller.

Most American whiskey, rye and bourbon specifically, is aged in new, charred oak barrels, and there is a certain prestige attached to this presentation since any whiskey matured in used barrels is downgraded to the label “American Whiskey” by law. However, charred wood can sometimes overpower a great whiskey that might benefit from a long nap in other cooperage. And some younger distilleries haven’t quite gotten the hang of properly treating the barrels before aging the whiskey, so it comes out tasting like sawdust, or worse, mold.

In the old days, as Wondrich says, there was a “mixed ecosystem” of whiskey, with small distilleries doing their own thing and larger distilleries doing the heavy lifting with bourbon and rye. Now it’s expected that all distilleries, big and small, make their versions of the same product everyone else carries, with new oak being the “de-facto style,” according to Wondrich. It begs the question: Why not branch out a little with used wood to make a statement?

The tasting consisted of four whiskeys with the same proof and mash bill: A version of the Emerald fresh off the still; a version that aged for four months in previously used ex-pinot noir French oak wine barrels that had been cleaned and toasted; a version that aged for three years in new French wood with a medium toast; and a version that aged three years in ex-pinot noir barrels.

Ransom Rye, Barley, Wheat Whiskey

Going through the Ransom Rye, Barley, Wheat Whiskey tasting in NYC (image via Amanda Schuster)

The variances were dazzling. The naked whiskey itself is very floral and fruity (Seestedt says he likes his whiskey to taste like eau-de-vie), with a creamy texture, almost akin to a genever style of gin.

Glass 2 brought on more chocolaty, toasty flavors. As Seestedt commented, “The ester-y aromatics drop off.” The flowery tones had also been quelled quite a bit, putting more emphasis on the palate.

Glass 3 showed off more of the rye in the mash bill (“Rye is such a bully,” offered Wondrich), with spicier, more woody notes. However, upon nosing, this glass smelled the most like an Irish whiskey, with very mild fragrances and almost none of the spice, demonstrating a big difference between nose and palate.

Glass 4 was the crowd favorite and the closest to the actual Emerald Whiskey product on the market. It had soft, tart, stone fruit, raisins, hoppy flowers, and bitter chocolate. The nose and palate acted the most harmoniously in this expression.

So how was the new whiskey? Ransom’s Rye, Barley, Wheat is aged in used, toasted French oak that, like the one in Glass 4, once held pinot noir. The barley itself consists of both malted and unmalted grain, imparting a chewy, cereal quality. The oak lends a good deal of plummy, tart fruit, honey, and toasted caramel, with the hops of the malt shining through in clean, spring florals. It’s a very well-balanced whiskey that definitely would have tasted quite different had it been given the new, charred oak treatment. The aromatics and the flavors were dancing in perfect rhythm.

Look out for Ransom’s Rye, Barley, Wheat in early September. Until then, it’s worth experimenting with young and mature American whiskeys in different oaks to suss out some of these nuances. The effects might surprise you.

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