Canadian Rye, Three Ways

There are a number of whiskies out there that sit in the “American”/”Bourbon” section of your local liquor store that should more appropriately be sitting in the Canadian section. Three highly-regarded ryes – WhistlePig, Masterson’s, and Jefferson’s, despite hanging out next to Rittenhouse, Jim Beam Rye, Sazerac and others, are actually produced in Canada. You’ll see this usually acknowledged in teeny type on the label somewhere.

My interest in looking at these a while back was spurred by seeing a bottle of WhistlePig in one of my local haunts that had a store-made shelf talker which loudly announced WhistlePig as being made in Vermont.

That seemed odd to me – rye is in short supply these days and it’s not one of those things that a lot of people are producing. It’s a ridiculously tough grain to work with when compared to the other options out there, and has a tendency to get really sticky. (Don’t believe me? Try making some rye bread – even if rye is only 30-40% of the total flour weight, you will quickly see how much stickier rye is than wheat).

I looked on the back and saw the “Produced in Canada” label. Ah yes. It’s as American as William Shatner, poutine and ice hockey. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love Star Trek as much as the next guy.

Digging some more, I saw two other ryes were noted as sharing some similarities with WhistlePig: Masterson’s and Jefferson’s. All three are 10 year old straight ryes, just at differing proofs. Clearly the best thing to do is have a shootout.

Starting at the top is the most expensive and probably most well known rye, WhistlePig. It’s garnered some awards and has developed a pretty good reputation. Its following is maybe not the most fervent out there, but that’s because it’s pricing itself into the premium end of North American whiskies.

WhistlePig’s nose is initially dry and slightly spicy, with a fairly hefty dose of wood. There’s a trace of black pepper, some oranges providing some zesty top-end to the nose, and a gentle caramel influence. Confectioner’s sugar, gentle cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and faint clove rounded out the nose.

The palate started woody initially, with a slightly dry and light mouthfeel, but that opened up. It started to get more sweet, and cinnamon also added some heat to the palate. It was lightly floral as I commonly find ryes to be, and there was a slight caramel tone to the sweetness.

The finish was initially warm, but the heat faded, and left a slightly caramel sweetness with a good dose of rye and gentle spices. White pepper heat contrasted with nutmeg, and it all resolved to a wood finish.

Does WhistlePig live up to the hype? It’s a pretty good nose for a rye, with tons of baking spices competing for your attention. A little sweetness helps round out the palate and provides nice contrast with the spice and wood. It’s got tons of character and at 10 years, the really piney notes you get from a lot of ryes have been tamed.

That’s a promising start for this whiskey. The next up was Masterson’s, which came in at 45% ABV (compared to WhistlePig’s 50%).

Masterson’s nose was spicy and initially sharp, with white and black pepper abundant. It opened up to the familiar note of confectioner’s sugar and some sweet toffee. There was definitely wood again on the nose, but overall the nose was predominantly sweet with spice as a shading. I couldn’t help but shake the image of a fresh beignet when nosing this.

The palate entered with a light to moderate weight, with wood and a slow, spicy heat initially – again in the form of cinnamon. There was a very agreeable mellow sweetness permeating everything, with confectioner’s sugar giving some direct sweetness. It was gently sweet and had some faint piney notes, and again reminded me of a pastry.

The finish was sweet and agreeable with gentle toffee, but a more pronounced caramel character and a touch of maple syrup. There’s a light wood influence that was obvious, and it even had a slightly vanilla character to me.

Masterson’s had an undeniable similarity to WhistlePig, though at the lower proof, the sweetness shone through. It lacked some of the complexity on the nose, but had a more easygoing sweetness not found in the WhistlePig. Overall, I thought it was really nice.

Finally, the last option was Jefferson’s Rye, also 10 years old, and splitting the proof difference at 47%.

The nose on Jefferson’s was lightly woody and had traces of pine. Sweetness with the expected confectioner’s sugar, as well as some caramel led on the nose, with gentle cinnamon and a touch of anise to add a little more dimension.

The whisky had a medium mouthfeel, fairly rich and again led with wood and built heat slowly with cinnamon. The woody character lightened but remained present. Toffee and maple syrup developed in the background. Overall, the palate seemed to have a nice gentle heat and an agreeable balance between wood and sweetness. Again, like the Masterson’s, I thought the palate was slightly bready like a fresh doughnut. (Actually, it reminded me most of a malasada).

The finish was sweet and slightly minty at first, but then was dominated by wood with a little cinnamon and rye. It was slightly bitter, and a little nutmeg went along with the wood.

Again, I found Jefferson’s a pretty good whisky. Given that it runs a little cheaper it might be the best buy of the bunch. Tasting in this sequence though, I thought it lacked a clear identity when compared to the spice cabinet of WhistlePig or the decadent pastry sweetness of Masterson’s.

So that leads us to the obvious conclusion: Which of these straight ryes is worth buying?

Well, truthfully, I wouldn’t be ashamed to have any of these on my bar. They’re all good, but they do something slightly different.

If you’re a spice fan and don’t mind a little heat and slight dryness, you should check out WhistlePig. I really enjoyed the nose on this one, and every aroma was distinct and clear.

If you’re a sweet tooth, head straight for Masterson’s. In retrospect I think I might prefer Masterson’s to the WhistlePig; a little extra water seemed to get this one sorted in the right direction for me. Don’t expect this to be as totally creamy sweet as an E yeast Four Roses, we’re still talking about a 100% rye mashbill.

If you can’t decide, are a newcomer to 100% rye whiskies, or your budget is tighter? Jefferson’s. If you want something a little sweeter, you should go with Masterson’s, and if you want a little spicier, WhistlePig is your ticket. While I’d say this was my least favorite of the three, it’s only because the other two had clearer identities in a 3-way tasting. I still have this as my bottle on the bar and will enjoy every drop that I don’t share out as a sample.

Honestly, of these three, I don’t think there’s a bad choice. And that’s great for all of us.

At a glance:

WhistlePig 10y Straight Rye 50% ABV
A dry, slightly spicy nose with a solid wood influence, light black pepper, light oranges, a gentle caramel body, light powdered sugar, gentle cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and a faint touch of clove.
Palate:  Initially dry and light and slightly woody; sweetness starts to show as the cinnamon heats up the palate. Lightly floral and again a slight caramel body to the sweetness.
Finish:  Warm initially, but the heat fades and leaves a lightly caramel sweetness with a good dose of rye and gentle spices on top. White pepper provides the heat with a shade of nutmeg. Resolves to wood.
Comment:  A nicely aged rye with balance, spice, and character. Tons of interest and the age does a lot to tame any overly piney characteristics that you get in too many ryes these days.
Rating: B+

Masterson’s Rye 45% ABV
Spicy and sharp initially, white and black pepper in abundance. Opens up with some confectioner’s sugar and a sweet toffee note. Wood is evident but the nose is predominantly sweet with spice. Smells slightly like a fresh beignet. 
Light-to-moderate body, enters a little woody and a slow spicy heat – gentle cinnamon. Mellow sweetness all around. Confectioner’s sugar again. Gentle spice, very faintly piney. Faint pastry sweetness.
Sweet and agreeable; gentle toffee but more light caramel and a touch of maple syrup. Light wood influence is obvious on this, even a touch of vanilla. 
Quite similar to WhistlePig, but a little sweeter. 

Jefferson’s Rye 10y 47% ABV
Lightly woody and with traces of pine. Sweet with caramel, a light touch of confectioner’s sugar, some gentle cinnamon and a touch of anise. 
Medium richness, wood at the entry and a gentle cinnamon build. Wood lightens but remains present, more toffee and a touch of maple syrup in the background. Gentle heat, and a reasonable balance between wood and sweetness. Slightly bready, like a fresh doughnut. 
Sweet with a slightly minty note for a second, but then predominantly on wood with a little cinnamon and rye. Ever so slightly bitter; a little nutmeg goes along with the wood. 
Pretty good. Not a bad rye for the price, in fact. 



5 thoughts on “Canadian Rye, Three Ways”

  1. The price point of Jefferson’s is the reason why I’ve tried it, but not the other two. At least here in OR, it’s half the price of the other two. And once you get around $70, you’re competing against the BTAC (not to mention an awful lot of good scotch), which is a mighty high threshold to cross.

    1. Yep, that’s exactly right, and the pricing is roughly the same in CA. North of $50 and I think you’ve got to fight hard to justify every dollar as a bourbon or rye. I don’t know that I’m sold that WP cleanly does it. Masterson’s, to my palate, is a little closer to justifying it. However, Jeff is so reasonably priced and pretty much playing the same tune as the others…

      Granted, I doubt I’ll be going all-in on BTAC this year so maybe I’ll fill the ER17 or Saz18 slot with a Masterson’s..

      1. It seems like the American distillers are starting to put out feelers to see where the price wall is now, Elijah Craig 20 being a big example. But even with rising scotch prices, you’re right that anything above $50 puts it in competition with a lot of other good stuff.

        1. Yeah, north of $100 for American is an incredibly tough sell for me without a trusted palate giving it stellar markings. Unfair when I’ll happily drop two to three times that on a Scotch? Perhaps. But I haven’t really encountered a lot from our shores that merits that pricing. Whereas Scotland can ultra-age stuff, I think American whiskies have a real challenge keeping the wood in balance that long if it’s new oak.

          EC20 or the upcoming $111 WhistlePig – I’d have to hear unqualified raves to really have any interest.

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