A Midwinter Night's Dram: Making the Special, Special

A Midwinter Night's Dram: Making the Special, Special
High West Distillery loves to create special editions. Their most recent adventure takes their very well-regarded Rendezvous Rye (a blend of 6yr 95% rye whiskey with a 16yr 80% rye whiskey) that is given an extra finish in French Oak port wine barrels. It was released on Valentine’s Day and an homage to Shakespeare: The Midwinter Night’s Dram. This automatically makes it the dream whiskey for any English and Theater majors out there.

They say to drink this neat… which is a statement in and of itself because the whiskey is bottled at 98.6 proof! (That’s very hot… usually we try to drink our whiskey around 76-78 proof blending with water as needed.) In another interesting statement, they suggest to us looking for flavors of Christmas plum pudding, "lovely mulling spices, dried fruits, and crème anglaise." Let us see...

Our program will be to compare the Rendezvous Rye first with something that you, Dear Reader, will be familiar with: the Bulleit Rye. Going in, we expect a bit more intense rye in the Bulleit relative to the Rendezvous and we’ll make that the base. Then, in order to recommend the stretch to the special edition Midwinter Nights Dram, we'lll compare the Rendezvous Rye to its own port-finish self with the 'Dram. Finally, in order to better understand the port finish, we’ll compare a scotch: the Glenmorangie 10yr Single Malt with the Glenmorangie 12yr Quinta Ruban, which is the same scotch given an extra 2 years of aging in port wine casks, similar to the High West special edition 'Dram.

Bulleit:

95% rye and 90 proof, this is one of the rye whiskeys that really started to put rye back on the map. Many people who decide to investigate rye start here. The aroma will immediately distinguish itself as dusty and dry. It hits the palate with orange, clove, pepper, and spice, finishing with heat. A little cold water mellows the flavor and brings out some vanilla notes from the barrel. It just begs for a little something else to make it into a classic cocktail. This is our base: dry, sharp, and spicy.

Rendezvous Rye:

The Rendezvous is twice the price and a touch stiffer at 92j proof. The same, young, 95% rye is here mellowed out with the older 80% rye. The color is already darker than the Bulleit (extra age?) and the spicy rye aroma is softer. The extra age makes a far mellower, more adult, and more mature spirit. It is a far, far more relaxed whiskey than the Bulleit and much more eligible to be drunk by itself but it needs a little ice or water. Giving it a little water it assumes some truly yoga / Tai Chi levels of relaxation and serves as an excellent example of a rye sipper. A little more water brings out the sweet sugar character of the barrel. Some might quibble about whether or not it’s worth twice the price but it tastes significantly better. For those who sip single barrel bourbon, this is a likely target to explore rye whiskey.

Midwinter Nights Dram:

Now, what happens when you put a little port wine sweetness from the extra aging in that Rendezvous rye blend and leave it at 98.6 proof? Most obviously, there’s a striking difference in the color. Where the Rendezvous is a golden color, the 'Dram is a deep, burnished mahogany. The port resting has altered the color considerably. What about the aroma? The nose teases out apple… and yes, we admit it!, plum. Smelling blind, we might’ve guessed it was a calvados or other aged fruit brandy. Tasting, there’s a ton of fruit on the front-end and the port really cleans out the char on the finish. For those who like Manhattan cocktails, this might be reminiscent of a very dry version of the Manhattan. The fruit provides for a luscious edge that’s lacking in the straight-up rye. Where we begged for an additional flavor, this port finish might offer it. We differ with the distillers in that drinking neat is foolish because a little ice really opened up the caramel and turned this into a candied-caramel, port wine, mellow glass of flavor. The rye is now subtle. This is a powerful and complex whiskey: a flood of flowers and fruit cascading down a field of rye. Very impressive.

Playing Around: Drambuie

Just for fun, we tried to give it a quick but complex kick with a bit of Drambuie as a kind of faux Rusty Nail cocktail (Drambuie being the signature additive to scotch to make the cocktail). Alas, this turned out to be a bad idea. A very bad idea. Why that Drambuie works with scotch and not with rye whiskey is unclear to us, but the sugar counteracts the rye rather like matter and anti-matter in space opera movies. Not recommended. Of the three, the Midwinter Nights Dram best handled the additional sugar but it certainly didn’t improve the whiskey and rather detracted from its best qualities. There is no such thing as a rusty nail at the Globe Theater.

Playing Around: Sazerac Cocktail

All rye whiskey must answer to the Sazerac cocktail, probably one of the greatest cocktails ever created. We used 1.5 oz of the rye whiskey with a dash of agave syrup, a rinse of Herbsaint, 2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, and a lemon twist served up. It’s just a perfect cocktail with the lemon citrus, the bitter mixing with the sugar, and the kiss of anise from the liqueur. Gorgeous.

When using the 'Dram compared to the other ryes, the natural red of the Sazerac is, predictably enough, more red. The flavor here is more caramelized licorice on the finish. Very pleasant. With the rye is a mulled wine flavor that renders the anise into more of a supporting role than it already had.

Whic his better, the classic rye or the 'Dram? Both are damned good drinks and on our scale this is a “We Would Finish the Drink and Order Another” score. Forcing a choice, the committed Sazerac enthusiast would find a mildly sweeter and different dimension in the 'Dram expression but perhaps just a bit jarring to the purist. Do you want an adventure or do you want the pleasant glow of anticipation fulfilled? This is your distinction.

Playing Around: Whiskey Smash

This is a recommended cocktail from the High West folks, though slightly altered. They say a lemon wedge and mint leaves with sugar muddled. We used spearmint liqueur from broVo with a lemon wedge. Shake and serve on rocks. The result was too much lemon, too much acid, too little whiskey… and a taste like rancid lemonade. Maybe we made it wrong. Still, would it be better with the Midwinter? It is interesting to see what happens when different liquors hit bad cocktails. The 'Dram in this miserable drink of ours was actually worse: a rotting fruit dimension to the rancid lemonade.

What about the Port?

So we checked out the Glenmorangie expressions to try and understand what port finishes do to a whiskey. The flagship 10 is a nice, grassy, lightly peated, honey-driven scotch. Very approachable, very nice. The Quinta Ruban with its extra 2 years in port casks is a far, far darker color. You can see the difference in a gloomy room from 20 yards away. The taste here is all sweetened caramel. Missing is the heavy fruit flavors that we noted with the rye… perhaps the barley and peat is smothering the nose of fruit (which would be weird, because to us younger scotch often reminds of fruit).

So what does port do? It introduces some sweetness, some color, and some element of grape, though varying with the grain and aging. This is something we can rather definitively declare. We can say it adds a dimension to the spirit though it may clash for it does alter the character of cocktails and this may upset the classicists out there. Many in our group regard it as a pleasant diversion from the norm but not a mainstay… rather like an exciting revisit of honeymoon bliss in an unusual location on the 10th anniversary before going back to routine.

What Did We Learn

At $80, the Midwinter Nights Dram is flying in very high company. Expecting to spend that kind of money, springing for the special edition finished in port wine casks takes a bit of a commitment. We find it delicious but delicious in an exotic way. To us, because it’s not something to drink every night, it belongs particularly in that place reserved for special editions. Understanding that, if your rye whiskey ritual is getting a little stale, the extra money is a small price to pay for the excitement... indeed, rather like a trip to England for a Shakespearean performance.

by Neal MacDonald, editor

[Disclosures: we were provided a 750ml bottle of Midwinters Night Dram by the distillers for review purposes; all other products mentioned here were acquired on our own for comparison purposes.]
2014-06-02
Published by Proof66.com