It’s hard to deny that we’re in the midst of a rye shortage. (It’s also hard to believe, as new ryes are released seemingly every month.) American sales of rye whiskey have exploded since the beginning of the cocktail renaissance, but with most ryes being aged in casks for at least four years, predicting future demand has proved increasingly difficult for distillers. It’s been a month since I last saw a bottle of bonded Rittenhouse, a brand that generally releases their new batches in the winter. The resulting catastrophe: the locals have tippled their way through Rittenhouse and totted their way through Old Overholt. If we don’t see new batch releases soon, we’ll be hoarding whiskey and running clandestine cases across state lines. Who will save us from this (somewhat melodramatic) plight?
Admittedly, probably not Finger Lakes. A micro-distillery on the Seneca Wine Trail in upstate New York, Finger Lakes Distilling currently releases 8,000 cases of its Mckenzie Rye per year; to put this in perspective, Templeton Rye produces about 40,000 cases of its rye, while Jack Daniel’s produces 10 million cases of Old No. 7 each year. So, they’re not going to be playing knight in shining armor to the whiskey-loving masses just yet. But the boys at Finger Lakes do have something they want to share with you, and you should really try it.
These ardent farm distillers source their grains locally and produce a range of artisanal spirits, among them a wonderful bourbon, an Irish-inspired whiskey, a gin just released this week and the rye in question. The rye is produced by master distiller Thomas Earl McKenzie, whose family trade has been Alabama moonshine for generations. He collaborates with owner Brian McKenzie (oddly, no relation). The two have been pursuing the perfection of their trade ever since meeting in 2007, when they discovered a shared vision for a craft distillery, and the means to make it a reality on the shores of Seneca Lake.
McKenzie Rye is distilled in the duo’s custom-designed 350 gallon Holstein copper pot still, pictured below. Clocking in at 91 proof, it’s a touch hotter than your average whiskey, a practice which Brian says they make standard. The McKenzies “like more liberal cuts on the tail end of the run to keep more of the flavor in the product”, resulting in a spicy, lingering bouquet that remains wonderfully clean.
The mash bill itself is 80 percent rye and 20 percent barley, which adds a hint of floral freshness to the bakery and butterscotch scent of the rye. The whiskey is aged for 12-18 months in 10 gallon Ozark oak barrels, and then finished in 53 gallon sherry casks for between two and three months. This rounds out the sooty caramel flavor of this rather young whiskey with fruity notes of orange peel and jam. You’ve got to appreciate the calculated nod to their Irish and Scotch forebears with the nontraditional use of multiple casks, as well as a preference for malted barley over corn or wheat.
At a time when the demand for rye is at an all time high and distillers are struggling to supply the American market, most new rye producers are simply looking to catch a ride on the well spirit wagon, and are increasingly using mass-produced rye stocks from MGP Ingredients (formerly LDI) out of Indiana. But a few boutique distilleries are trying to usher the 20th century’s hippest whiskey into a new era, and McKenzie Rye is right there in the craft’s vanguard.
McKenzie is perhaps my new favorite rye whiskey. But far more important than my own opinion is the fact that these guys are putting out quality bespoke whiskeys at a fraction of the price of their competitors. At least in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania, the only states they currently ship to.
So watch these guys carefully over the next few years. This is still the beginning for Finger Lakes Distilling, and a strong one at that.
- 45.5% Alcohol by Volume