From Left: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye, Pikesville Straight Rye, Van Winkle Family Reserve … [+]
Kentucky is as beloved for its fine whiskeys as it is for its horse racing traditions. But the first Saturday in May is going to look vastly different this year: The 146th Run for the Roses has been postponed until September 5 due to necessary precautionary measures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s the first time this milestone event hasn’t taken place as intended since 1945, during World War II.
But don’t despair: Churchill Downs will be “hosting” a first-of-its-kind virtual event to be broadcasted by NBC on May 2, from 3 to 6 p.m. EST. The Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown will be a computer-simulated race, featuring all thirteen Triple Crown victors.
Beginning April 30, die-hard fans can “vote” for their favorite Triple Crown winner and make donations to raise funds for COVID-19 relief efforts. In the running are: Sir Barton (1919); Gallant Fox (1930); Omaha (1935); War Admiral (1937); Whirl Away (1941); Count Fleet (1943); Assault (1946); Citation (1948); Secretariat (1973); Seattle Slew (1977); Affirmed (1978); American Pharoah (2015); and Justify (2018).
Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, is the favorite to win the virtual Kentucky Derby in a … [+]
Corbis via Getty Images
The virtual winners will be determined based on historical handicapping and modern algorithms that’ll help establish the probability on which horse will emerge as the greatest of all time. (For the record: Secretariat was the fastest among them and is a top contender.)
Beyond that, there will be an official at-home Derby party initiative (complete with a #KYDerbyAtHome hashtag) to help equine enthusiasts celebrate via a fashion contest, kids’ craftmaking sessions, and cocktail classes—among other celebratory extravaganzas.
And that’s as good a reason as any to raise a superb dram in its honor.
So I tapped DC-based whiskey influencer Eric Kim (of @scotchandtime and @bourbonandtime fame). The man is best known for his ultra-comprehensive spirits and cigar collection—plus his exclusive invite-only events, The Scotch and Time Series.
“I always had some whisky in my collection but I was actually more of a wine guy back in the day. I have a wine cellar in my basement and in 2008 the market for wine crashed—so I wanted to sell my rarer wines before the big drop,” Kim says. “I also had some vintages that were starting to peak or pass their peak. I needed something that wouldn’t perish. The higher proof in distilled spirits was perfect: Sealed bottles last indefinitely and open bottles are good for years. It was perfect to be able to go home and drink an ounce or so before bed. More than a thousand bottles later, I became somewhat of an expert.”
Over the years, Kim fell more and more in love with American liquor—specifically bourbon and rye. However, he’d be the first to admit that rye is his real jam, eventually acquiring a vast number of hard-to-find bottlings.
Traditional mint juleps call for bourbon. But making the official Kentucky Derby cocktail with rye … [+]
“One of the most common things I hear from Scotch drinkers is that American whiskeys can never reach the levels of complexity that an aged Scotch can. And as someone who drinks a lot of Scotch, I disagree,” Kim says. “There are limitations in bourbon because it needs to be made of 51% corn or higher and stored in a new oak vessel. Rye is the same—only in reverse. Rye needs to be 51% rye, in place of the corn. Traditional rye is a bit spicy and isn’t exactly for everyone. One of the best methods of making a better whiskey is low entry proof. Michter’s is probably the best known for this method. The law requires that bourbon and rye go into the barrel at no higher than 125-proof. Michter’s goes in at 103, which is far more expensive because water is added up front. (Most brands add water at the end—basically, just diluting it so more whiskey bottles can be filled.) By adding water up front, the water mixes with the whiskey, as well as the oak. It then gets absorbed by the wood in the summer and pushed back out in the winter. This allows the water to absorb flavor, along with the whiskey—creating some amazingly deep and complex expressions. I really get layers that I don’t get in a traditional rye. Anything 110-proof or less would be considered low entry proof in my opinion.”
So now let’s get to the nitty gritty. While bourbon is still the preferred spirit for a mint julep (the signature drink at Churchill Downs) a spectacular rye is a safe bet for what would have been Derby Day 2020—and its virtual incarnation. And yes, rye juleps are actually a thing, if you’re so inclined. Here are some of Eric’s top 12 ryes to put a little giddy-up on your step this year.
The Best Ryes to Drink While Watching ‘Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown’
“Michter’s has always been a favorite because they think out of the box. Not only are they well known for their low 103 entry proof—but they are one of the only brands that chill filter all of their whiskey,” Kim says. “That’s normally frowned upon but Michter’s chill filters every recipe differently. It’s not a one-size-fits-all process. By doing so they maximize flavor while reducing the number of particles that can affect flavor in a negative way. The straight rye is an entry level. But it’s delicious. For approximately $40, this is an amazing introduction to rye and one I recommend for both beginners as well as seasoned rye drinkers. This is also the lowest proof so it should go down smoothly without much of a ‘Kentucky hug’ on the way down.”
“Another amazing affordable rye that I would recommend to anyone is Wilderness Trail Settlers Select Rye. It’s 119–proof but it does not drink hot. It’s one of my top choices every time for a $60 price tag,” Kim says. “This is unique among the group as it uses a sweet mash. Most bourbons and ryes are made using the sour mash method, which uses some spent mash. This is important because the sour mash helps fight off harmful bacteria and makes it easier to control flavor consistency. In sweet mash, no old mash is used. It tastes sweeter because there’s very little acidity. The flavors are smooth and crisp but without acid there’s a much higher risk. The owners of Wilderness Trail were able to finance the distillery using proceeds from the impressive lab in the facility—where they not only work with fossil fuels but also do a lot of lab work for other distilleries. One of the best young ryes you can buy!”
“Originally distilled in Baltimore, Maryland, Pikesville is now part of the Heaven Hill portfolio,” Kim says. “This product wins the title of ‘the most requested not to usually make my list.’ (Because the rye lovers want to keep it a secret.) Priced at around $50, more or less, it’s a rye that can hold its own in any showdown. I don’t know how much of a secret it still is, considering that it won double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits competition in 2015 and Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible named it Best Rye in the World and the Second Best Whiskey in 2016. Go for the price run before everyone realizes how good it is.”
“The only rye outside of the state of Kentucky to make the list, this bottle continues to amaze me,” Kim says. “Woodinville is 10 years old and makes all of their own whiskey. It’s not sourced and never has been—yet someone really knew what they were doing because there’s not a single bad expression in their profile. The mash bill is very simple here as it’s 100% rye and 100% delicious. If you like vanilla, caramel, and espresso beans this is the rye for you.”
“Kentucky Owl as we know it is not an old brand. Indeed, it was established in 1879—then it went silent in 1919 due to prohibition,” Kim says. “Brought back in 2014 by Dixon Dedman, Kentucky Owl quickly shot to legend status. The rye has always been a favorite and it’s a true rye drinker’s rye. In 2017 the brand was acquired by Stoli, who wisely kept Dixon on as the master blender. This Batch 3 Rye is positive proof that amazing whiskey continues to be produced at Kentucky Owl.”
“Willett is considered one of the rarest and most prestigious whiskey brands in America,” says Kim. “Its single barrels are legendary and very hard to find. Because single barrels are all different and scarce, we will focus on the small batch—which is affordable, at around $50, and still delicious. Aged in hand-selected barrels for four years and maintaining cask strength, there’s plenty of flavor and spice for whiskey lovers to enjoy.”
“The standard Sazerac is very popular pour among rye enthusiasts and the 18 Year is the oldest in the premier Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC),” Kim says. “It’s named after the famous Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans—and the creator of America’s first cocktail, aptly named Sazerac. The 18 Year Old provides a very complex flavor profile that develops in oak for a long time. It’s hard to find but worth the search.”
“Another staple of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, this slightly more accessible rye is accepted by many as the top rye in the Buffalo Trace lineup,” says Kim. “Bottled at cask strength this uncut and unfiltered rye has a great profile combination of pepper, dried fruit, citrus, and honey. A little trivia for you: Thomas Handy was one of the original barmen and eventually an owner of the Sazerac Coffee House.”
“Booker’s rye was released in 2016 with a second small release in 2017. And this rye is special in more than one way,” Kim says. “This is one of the oldest Booker’s at over 13 years old. It was one of the last barrels that Booker T. Noe laid down in 2003 before his passing in 2004. Jim Murray considered this bottling the World Whisky of the Year in 2017, causing its already hefty $300 MSRP to jump over to $1000 immediately. It sits at over 135–proof, making it one of the highest proof rye whiskeys on the market. The nose isn’t as overpowering as one might expect of a high-proof whisky: There’s plenty of great spice and an amazing mouthfeel. You get a great long Kentucky hug and leather notes I love. A winner of you can find it!
“One of the lesser known yet most sought after of the Van Winkle Collection is this 13 Year Old rye. It’s my favorite of all the Pappys,” Kim says. “Moderate spice with a heavy caramel and sweet tobacco nose. This rye has some great leather and roasted nuts and a lingering dried cherry finish. With an MSRP of $120 this would be my favorite rye value if only I could find it regularly. Expect a significant premium, as with other Pappy products.”
“The only bottle in the lineup that I’ve never owned and only been able to taste a select few times. This is the King of Rye in my opinion,” Kim says. “Michter’s is the only brand that made this rye list twice. Once with one of the best values in rye and again with the most expensive rye on the list. This 25–Year rye is not only the oldest by far. But it also carries an MSRP of close to $1000. It’s so hard to find that luck or a special relationship is the only way to get this bottle without paying north of $5000. The biggest surprise is that at this age, I wasn’t overwhelmed with oak notes, which is common among older whiskies. It’s a single barrel and therefore the number of bottles that are available in a given batch is determined by the angel’s share. Many years can mean batches that total under 100 bottles total. If I could have just one rye this would be it.”
“Probably my favorite rye of 2019, this hits all the checkmarks for me,” Kim says. “Mark and Sherri Carter have been making 100-point wines for two decades and now their amazing palates are working whiskey magic. Batch No. 4 is one of the most complex and floral whiskies I’ve had. Only 942 bottles were made: It was a micro batch with five barrels blended to make this release. Sweet with a nice light leathery mouthfeel and an amazingly pleasant long finish. This was the first rye that truly made me feel that rye could hold its own against any whiskey in the world.”