Once upon a time, Midwest Grain Products of Indiana was simply known as the source of so many non-distiller-producer whiskey brands cluttering up the shelf at the average package store. MGP, as it’s much more commonly known, is a former Seagram plant with a legendarily large production capacity and warehouses, containing stock of aging whiskey that goes back to time immemorial, in a huge array of mash bills and aging techniques. This makes MGP something of a Willy Wonka-style wonderland for a young distillery sourcing bourbon or rye whiskey, as there is no shortage of variety for the choosing.
If there’s one product that is indelibly linked to MGP in the modern whiskey landscape, though, it’s rye. The famed “95/5” MGP rye recipe (95% rye, 5% malted barley) was the first exposure that many drinkers had to an extremely high-percentage rye whiskey, and it proved popular enough that it effectively transformed the American perception of rye away from the sweeter, “barely legal” Kentucky-style rye at 51% and in the direction of a spicier, drier alternative. That 95/5 rye recipe soon found its way into countless sourced brands, from the sheer iniquitousness of Bulleit Rye to brands like Templeton Rye, High West Double Rye and Sagamore Spirit Rye. These types of brands helped propel the American cocktail renaissance of the 2000s, and with it came a new appreciation of rye whiskey, America’s original grain-based spirit of choice.
But through all that time, MGP itself was never really receiving the credit it was due, simply for the fact that it had no whiskey brands of its own. The last few years have finally changed that, as MGP has unveiled several house brands to highlight its own production. Of these, it’s the George Remus bourbons that have received the lion’s share of the attention, particularly the well-aged (and excellent) Remus Repeal Reserve series. But what of rye, the product that MGP has been so known for all along?
For whatever reason, MGP’s own rye brand, Rossville Union, hasn’t seemed to receive quite the same attention since it arrived a couple years ago. It comes in a few expressions, each receiving a moderate level of aging (reportedly 5-6 years), being blends of the classic 95/5 rye and the less commonly sighted MGP Kentucky style-rye whiskey at 51%. The idea is presumably to offer a definitive version of the MGP-sourced rye whiskey that is still so common in the market today, and to do it at a decent price point.
I’d never gotten around to tasting Rossville Union until now, so let’s dive into the flagship and barrel proof expressions and see how they did.
The flagship Rossville Union rye whiskey is bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV), being a blend of MGP’s 51% and 95% rye recipes aged an average of 5-6 years, which is probably still a bit above average when it comes to American rye. The $40 MSRP doesn’t make it the cheapest “standard strength” rye on the shelf, but it doesn’t stick out too much either—and it’s somewhat older than many of the other sourced MGP ryes. Regardless, this one is clearly meant to be the in-house replacement for brands such as Bulleit or Templeton Rye.
On the nose, I’m immediately getting a lot of pepper and herbs. The “dill” note that people always associate with MGP rye is indeed present, although it has a quality of increasing and decreasing in prevalence each time I return to this sample. There’s also some bright mintiness, light citrus, stone fruit and caramel. Ethanol on the nose is very light, very gentle.
On the palate, this is a spicy, herbaceous rye that is on the drier side, at least when compared with so many American craft ryes today that have recently been pushing the style in a sweeter and richer direction. This one is an undeniably “rye-forward rye,” with lots of mixed peppercorns, anise, dill and slightly bitter caramel. There’s a combo of herbaceousness and very light bitterness (not unpleasant) that reminds me almost of hop-derived bitterness in the beer world, combined with savory notes of tobacco, cigar box and a hint of cocoa. Over time, the rye spice in particular emerges more and more. I’ve had a lot of those sweeter ryes recently, and this strikes me as much more focused on the flavors of the rye grain.
This barrel proof variant of the flagship Rossville Union rye whiskey has the same basic recipe and 5-6 year age range, but bumps the strength up to a more commanding 112.6 proof (56.3%), although that also indicates a relatively low barrel entry proof for MGP’s rye whiskeys—that, or barrels that lost some proof while aging. The $60 MSRP, meanwhile, certainly seems quite reasonable to me for that bump in proof, being among the more affordable “barrel strength rye” releases you’re liable to run into on the shelf. I think a lot of whiskey geeks might earmark this as a higher value right out of the gate for that reason.
On the nose, Rossville Union Barrel Proof Rye is initially similar, but the cocoa seems decidedly amped up in this go-round. There’s also something deeper and more roast-forward this time around, in addition to an increased “toastiness” that puts me in the mind of marshmallow or nougat. The dill also jumps in on the nose in a big way, although a surprising aspect is the lack of overt ethanol harshness once again, even at 112.6 proof. The proof has been quite well hidden here.
On the palate, this one is both rich and savory, although what it’s exuding is “richness” rather than overt residual sweetness. It’s quite oily in texture, with flavors that combine elements of fruit, spice, char and rye grain. I’m getting some apple and citrus on the fruity end, with caramelized sugar elements that have been increased from the flagship version, while also taking on a more roasty hue. The marshmallow is there, but it reminds me of a marshmallow you allowed to catch fire while making s’mores, only to quickly blow it out—as far as I’m concerned, the ideal s’more technique, combining both char and lighter vanillas. The rye spice, meanwhile, is really huge here—like the flagship, this is a celebration of the rye grain, but in an even more bombastic way. The alcohol, meanwhile, is integrated as nicely as it is on the nose—I’m walking away thinking of this as the signature aspect of the Rossville Union line, how they allow grain-derived flavors to take center stage, rather than booze.
All in all, these two ryes deliver just about exactly what you’d expect from MGP. If you’re a fan of their particular rye profile—and if you drink a lot of sourced rye brands, you probably are—then it behooves you to check them out.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.