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Chicken Cock Cotton Club Rye Whiskey (20 Year Old)

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Chicken Cock Cotton Club Rye Whiskey (20 Year Old)

No matter how many times you try a small sample of some whiskey brand with a notably high MSRP, it never truly gets any easier to lay that knowledge aside and objectively approach your evaluation of the liquid. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you still know this is a 20-year-old batch of Canadian rye you’re sampling, and that the owners and marketers have put an MSRP of $500 on it. And thus, the job of an evaluator must become both “how is this product in a vacuum?” and “Can this product justify such a huge expenditure for the consumer?”

The former can be a tough question to answer, and the latter nearly impossible. How, after all, does one really quantify whether a dram is delivering ”$500 worth” of enjoyment when extended to the contents of a 750 ml bottle? The “worth” of an experience in the eyes of one person is radically different from worth as calculated by another. It’s something that spirits writers like myself still struggle with, even after years of experience in evaluating such bottles.

I found myself grappling with some of these types of questions as I tasted the new Cotton Club Rye, a 20-year-old limited release in the Chicken Cock Whiskey family. Chicken Cock is a brand owned by Grain and Barrel Spirits, the owners of an array of brands such as Dixie Vodka, High Goal Gin, and Virgil Kaine Whiskey. They’re an NDP (non-distiller producer) focusing on sourced whiskey from an array of locales, with brands that include Kentucky bourbon and rye, as well as whiskeys finished in beer barrels, or extra-matured selections from Kentucky and Canada. The brand is no stranger to high-MSRP limited releases, but Cotton Club Rye is on another level at $500, which it owes to its huge age statement and unique nature.

This is 100 proof Canadian rye whiskey (90% rye, 10% malted barley), from an undisclosed source, which pays tribute to the original Chicken Cock brand, which was originally a U.S. brand that moved its production to Canada during the Prohibition era. The resulting product was reputedly smuggled back into the U.S. in bottles contained within tin cans, and the modern release is indeed housed within a tin container as well. The name comes from its association with New York’s famed Cotton Club, one of the most iconic speakeasies of the era, where the original Chicken Cock whiskey was reportedly served. This release, meanwhile, has been aged for 20 years in re-used bourbon barrels, as is common in Canadian whiskey manufacturing, where freshly charred barrels are less frequently used. This is a factor in the big age statement, as reuse barrels contribute less intensity of oak character over time compared with freshly charred ones, allowing for more advanced age statements that would result in almost all bourbons being unpleasantly over-oaked. It also leads to a uniquely different profile, as reuse barrels contribute substantially different flavor characteristics than newly charred oak.

So with all that said, let’s get to tasting Cotton Club Rye.

On the nose, this one leads with notes that most prominently display aspects of oak and sweetness. Cotton candy sweetness is prominent, along with unexpected flashes of strawberry and cherry, and a bit of chocolate. Alcohol is a bit forward, with an accompanying whiff of acetone, offset by the weathered oak tones of a rickhouse in long operation. Hints of cinnamon and clove round things out. The nose is somewhat earthy, though not particularly “rye” driven, which isn’t a big surprise to me given how long this one has been aging. I wouldn’t have expected it to be particularly big, punchy and spicy in the rye component.

On the palate, this one is quite oaky and spicy. There’s tons of old oak, which waffles between “toasted wood” and a more dry and fragrant quality, which contributes moderate levels of tannin. The front end of the palate has moderate sweetness, with notes of juicy cherry, cola spice and warm cinnamon, along with a bit of molasses cookie. This then dries out and turns oaky on the back end, although the oak influence reins itself in at an appropriate moment—I sort of admire how much oak character exists in this without it getting into the less desirable aspects of such long aging. Some drinkers, however, would no doubt find this to be oak dominated when all is said and done.

All in all, Chicken Cock Rye certainly offers something unique, which is to be expected given how different its manufacture and aging are from traditional American rye whiskeys, but I hesitate to describe the profile as a “crowd pleaser.” Rather, this seems to me like a idiosyncratic profile where the drinker’s opinion on its oaky tones will likely decide whether they like or dislike it—which of course begs the question, would you pay $500 in order to find that out? That’s asking a lot of the average consumer, so this bottle may be one you’ll want to seek out in a whiskey bar to sample first.

Distillery: Chicken Cock Whiskey
Style: Canadian rye whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $500 MSRP


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.