There are many different arenas of the whiskey world that are subject to the concept of diminishing returns, but no clearer illustration than when we venture into the world of high age-statement bourbon and rye. Unlike the malt/scotch whisky world, where aging in used barrels leads to a slower and softer maturation process, whiskey aged in newly charred barrels runs a much greater risk of passing its peak over time, especially once you get into age statements beyond 12 or 15 years. There’s a reason, in other words, that you don’t see much 20-year bourbon or rye, and it’s not just because there’s so little left in those barrels at that point that the resulting liquid commands a very high price. It’s because objectively, most of the time those whiskeys have had their flavor profiles negatively affected after too much time in the wood.
There are exceptions, of course, boiling down to the magical and minute changes in barrel chemistry that can occur even between two barrels in the same batch, sitting side by side. Sometimes you can find an extra-old barrel that has picked up none of the undesirable aspects of extremely long aging, and only inherited the best features of that flavor profile. But those opportunities are few and far between.
The Lock Stock and Barrel series of rye whiskeys from Cooper Spirits shoots for just such a rare exception. These are barrels of 100% Canadian rye whiskey, from the well-respected Alberta Distillers Ltd., which were purchased by third-generation distiller Robert J. Cooper years ago. Cooper Spirits subsequently has been putting out new versions of “LSB” every few years, starting with a 13 year, then a 16 year, and then an 18 year, culminating in the new 20 Year version of Lock Stock and Barrel straight rye. The last time I check in with the series was with the 16 year, and comparing the brand new 20-year iteration … well, it becomes hard to justify an MSRP that has continued to engorge while the amount of whiskey left shrinks. I’m not sure whether or not this is the final release of LSB, but I’m inclined to say that perhaps it should be. With a profile increasingly dominated by oak, and a price tag near $400, I don’t know how you could avoid invoking “diminishing returns” at this point.
To be more specific, this new 20-year iteration of LSB is a 100% Canadian rye whiskey, bottled at 112 proof (56% ABV). Only 3,000 bottles exist of this batch, which comes packaged in an opaque black glass bottle. The price tag: An eye-popping $389.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are aspects of LSB rye in particular that facilitate longer aging times, most notably the cold-weather maturation in Canada, which leads to slower aging than the warmer air of a climate like Kentucky. Likewise, Cooper Spirits touts its 3.5 barrel char and “lack of toasting” as conducive to being able to spend more time in the barrel without becoming over-oaked. And yet, after tasting LSB 20 Year, I’m afraid that it’s pushing in that direction all the same.
On the nose, LSB 20 Year is actually pretty promising, however. Seasoned oak is definitely the lead off, but there’s also some enticing notes of dark chocolate, cinnamon and nutmeg to be found here. Faint rye bread combines with pepper to suggest the mash bill, while subtle apple and peach/apricot gives it a bit of fruity complexity. All in all, it’s a nice nose, especially after sitting in the glass for a while, which brings out more of a sweet/rich toffee character.
These flavors have a more difficult time following over onto the palate. Here, the initial impressions are very spicy and oaky. It’s quite savory, as you’d probably expect for a rye of this unusually advanced age, with lots of tobacco and cigar wrapper, combined with spices that lean in the direction of ginger, clove, nutmeg and anise. There’s some molasses like sweetness, but that is quickly swept aside by burly oak and long-lasting tannins, which eventually contribute substantial dryness on the palate. The finish becomes increasingly oak dominated, with light bitterness, lots of pepper and char, almost slightly smoky. The fruitier and richer notes from the nose, meanwhile, become harder to find.
In short, I think this one has likely just passed its peak, which is unfortunate considering that higher age statements invariably mean higher price tags. What LSB 20 Year has going for it is sheer novelty—there are very, very few chances available to try rye whiskey this old. It may be worth your trying for that reason alone, depending on what kind of value you place on that novelty. But for almost $389, neither “interesting” or “good” can cut it. That price point absolutely demands the liquid inside the bottle to be transcendent, and I can’t say that about this one. Like the last few years of Orphan Barrel’s Rhetoric series of extra-aged bourbons, be aware that you’re definitely paying for an age statement here.
Distillery: Cooper Spirits (Alberta Distillers Ltd.)
City: Philadelphia, PA
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 56% (112 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $389 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.