Pretty much any time a limited whiskey release is highlighting a new production method as a selling point, one engages in the same push-pull question of “innovation vs. gimmickry.” Does the new process actually result in a better product? Does it transform that product in any notable way? Does it run counter to the norms of the industry, and is it more expensive to produce spirits that way? If the process is effective, why aren’t others already doing it? This is the usual gamut of inquiry.
Those questions loom large when looking at a product like Redemption Whiskey’s Sur Lee Rye. Those involved in the technical side of distillation (or fermentation and aging, for beer brewers) will know what the French term means: “sur lie” simply refers to aging a beer, wine or spirit on dead or deactivated yeast particles. The presence of this yeast during an aging process activates other chemical processes, resulting in a different flavor profile than would be achieved if the beer, wine or spirit was removed/filtered from the yeast before aging, as is typical.
In the whiskey world, the “lees” would be what we typical refer to as “sour mash,” the notably acidic leftovers produced when distilling the fermented mash. For hundreds of years, this sour mash has been a useful component for distillers looking for consistency, because adding a portion of older sour mash to the next batch of fermenting mash retards bacterial growth, allowing yeast to do its thing. For this rye, though, Redemption has essentially inverted the process by adding the lees/sour mash directly to barrels with the newly distilled rye, where that spirit proceeds to age on the yeast. The barrels are then periodically rotated to encourage interaction. The distillery says this results in “a whiskey that’s deep and complex with a floral upfront, nutty backdrop and decadent, buttery notes of toasted marshmallow, maple and nutmeg, balanced with a lingering spicy finish.”
One has to wonder, though: If cultivating desirable flavor is as simple as just including a portion of sour mash in barrels, why isn’t it already a widespread practice? Granted, there are some distilleries that have done it before, such as New Riff’s Backsetter Rye, but there aren’t many other relevant comparisons. The question becomes, how will the base spirit, sourced from MGP of Indiana (the classic 95-5 rye whiskey), be transformed by aging on the lees? And is that a desirable change, one worth doubling the typical MSRP from $30 to $60?
Let’s get to tasting, and find out.
On the nose, this one leads off with classic elements that I would expect to see represented in most MGP rye whiskeys—green apple fruitiness and plenty of rye spice, with assertive black pepper, anise and herbaceousness. It’s only after a while in the glass that other elements become much more obvious—there is indeed an unusually nutty quality here, like dry-roasted peanuts, which makes for a curious combination with more typical MGP tones of dill and mint. There’s likewise a little sweet marshmallow or meringue, adding a bit more of an exotic influence.
On the palate, I’m initially getting those same MGP staples, with fresh (slightly tart) apple and a whole lot of rye spice and herbal notes. Peppery heat then gives way to a bit of marshmallow fluff sweetness, and a toastiness that then evokes roasted nuts and honey—Honey Nut Cheerios, almost. Apricot fruit likewise plays nicely with a little vanilla, resulting in an MGP rye profile that has certainly been tweaked, if not radically transformed.
In the end, I find myself wondering if perhaps the “sur lee” process might have been more of a natural bedfellow with maturing bourbon rather than rye, as the notes it produced might seem more inherently complementary. On the other hand, pairing the process with rye whiskey likely resulted in a more clear illustration of what it adds, as the flavors are easier to highlight in contrast rather than in confluence. Is that worth doubling an MSRP to explore? That’s up to the consumer to decide.
Distillery: Redemption Whiskey (sourced from MGP)
City: Lawrenceburg, IN
Style: Straight rye whiskey
ABV: 47% (94 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.