High and Low: Buffalo Trace Straight Rye Head-to-Head – Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. vs. Sazerac

E.H. Taylor RyeType: Straight Rye Whiskey

ABV: 50%

Age: No Age Statement

Price: $75

Once I’ve spent money on a bottle of whiskey, I try to  never again think about its price.  I prefer to focus on the contents of the bottle, and the extent to which they will embiggen my swagger after I exhume the cork.  But there are some whiskies, like this E.H. Taylor Rye, that relentlessly draw my attention back to the matter of cost.  In isolation, I might be able to overlook the price of this bottle and focus on the rye whiskey within that cost me seventy-five dollars.  But I can’t, because I also have an open bottle of Sazerac Rye produced by the same distillery (Buffalo Trace), that cost me one-third as much.  Neither bottle bears an age statement, and one is vastly more enjoyable than the other.  So, here I am with two bottles of whiskey, one of which makes me feel like a savvy shopper and the other of which makes me feel like a massive chump.

I accept that whiskey collecting isn’t a rational pursuit.  Sometimes I just see a bottle and buy it, even though I’ve read reviews warning me off, or I strongly suspect that, based on prior experience, no non-age-stated straight rye whiskey on earth is worth seventy-five of my damned dollars.  In this case, a reviewer whose tastes often align with mine, and who had surprisingly good things to say about E.H. Taylor rye whiskey swayed me.  Also, dusty E.H. Taylor bourbon from the 1970s and 1980s is some of my favorite whiskey, so I succumb to a Pavlovian slobber reflex whenever I see the bright yellow Taylor label.

Little ol’ MGPI distillery, makin’ likker down in a holler.

Thanks to these two reasons I overrode my primary concern about E.H. Taylor Rye, which is that it is made from a mash bill of rye and malted barley, exclusively.  Unlike bourbon, or many straight rye whiskies (including Rittenhouse Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, Sazerac Rye, Thomas H. Handy Rye, and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye), it contains no corn.  I – and likely you – have tasted a lot of straight ryes made without corn, because most of the young ryes on the market are made this way.  These include Templeton Rye, a variety of Willett Ryes, Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Rye, and any number of faux-artisanal ryes, all of which actually emerge from the imposing, Stalinist-scale MGPI distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

None of these corn-less ryes are inherently bad, but I don’t much care for them. Sure, they’re fine in a Manhattan, but so are alternatives like Rittenhouse Rye, Sazerac Rye, or any number of high-rye bourbons like Old Grand-Dad or Four Roses, all of which are sanely priced, packed with corny goodness, and reasonably easy to find.  And consumed neat, these corn-less ryes are totally unentertaining.  So, after being burned a handful of times by MGPI ryes, I just stopped buying the stuff.

Why my opposition to rye made without corn?  I offer two reasons.  The first has to do with sensation: I have not yet tasted a corn-less rye that has much in the way of mouthfeel.  They’re thin and nearly unnoticeable on the tongue.  For me, this is a big bugaboo, because I place a high priority on a heavy, oily mouthfeel.  It makes the whole sipping experience vastly more enjoyable, and is exactly the sort of detail that can justify shelling out $75 for a bottle of rye without an age statement.  The second reason has to do with taste: all of the corn-less straight ryes I’ve encountered taste fairly uncomplicated.  The MGPI-produced ryes often taste minty and a little briny with a short finish.  I absolutely can’t chalk these issues up to a lack of corn; there are too many other variables at work.  But I can and do highlight these shortcomings as universal to all the no-corn ryes I’ve encountered.

But this E.H. Taylor was something new – a no-corn rye from Buffalo Trace, a different and highly respected distillery, which meant in defiance of all logic and experience that it could be worth an inflated price tag.  Right?  Right?

The nose on the E.H. Taylor Rye is lovely—soft and a bit citrus-y, and dominated by the musty, dusty quality that marks rye out as a less sweet alternative to bourbon.  At full strength, the taste follows through on the promise of the nose: it leads with some light, bright lemon flavors, and follows with a warming wave of very dry, classically musty rye flavor.  Then, a bit of alcohol burn follows up the grainy, almost rye bread-like flavor.  The finish is fairly short, leaving a trace of that initial bright citrus flavor, along with the rye mustiness in my cheeks.  But it’s quickly gone.  What’s missing is any trace of mouthfeel or personality.

In a just world, a world that rewarded childlike enthusiasm and naïve hope, I’d now be writing a paragraph extolling E.H. Taylor rye as the glorious exception that proves modern corn-less ryes need not be thin and uninteresting.  But this world is cruel, perhaps most of all to those of us with high hopes and bright hearts.  Don’t misunderstand me—this is very drinkable, very polished whiskey.  It is a major step up from any of the MPGI-distilled ryes I’ve tried (if only because it lacks any hint of that repellent brininess or pickle juice flavor I find in most MGPI rye).  It is also, though, wickedly close to dull.  The watery mouthfeel, the two-dimensional taste of citrus and mustiness, and the short finish all work against me reaching for another sip.  This is a thin whiskey, in both texture and taste profile, with an exceedingly rich asking price.

Let’s move over to the bottle of Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey, also from Buffalo Trace, and also absent an age statement.

Sazerac RyeType: Straight Rye Whiskey

ABV: 45%

Age: No Age Statement

Price: $27

How does it differ from the E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey?  Well, the Sazerac cost $27 – about one-third as much – and its mashbill includes plenty of corn.

On the nose, the Sazerac is much ballsier.  It has a sweet, rich backbone running beneath that glorious rye mustiness, which is turned up considerably over the E.H.  Taylor rye.  It smells of Goetze’s bulls-eye candies and dank spice, a combination that reminds me of my grandparents’ house in Clifton, New Jersey, where as a child I sat in a musty living room and wolfed those delicious caramel creams from a green and gold glass bowl.  The memory trigger is wonderful, and of course it biases me a bit towards the Sazerac rye.

In the mouth, the story is much the same.  Everything is deeper, richer, and darker than the E.H. Taylor Rye.  Where the Taylor rye offers a hint of citrus sweetness, the Sazerac clouts me over the head with the taste of candy corns.  The dank, musty spiciness is amplified, too, which balances out the initial sweetness.  And the mouthfeel is a revelation.  The Sazerac is no world-beater in this category, but compared with the E.H. Taylor rye, it is simply more tangible on the tongue.  The finish isn’t long, but certainly outlasts that of the E.H. Taylor.  I enjoyed a lingering taste of bulls-eye candy and dry rye spice along my cheeks for a minute or two after my last sip.

Is the Sazerac rye a classic?  No, but I’m not looking for such things at a sub-$30 price.  It is dense with delicious flavors, has a pleasant mouthfeel, and is perfectly enjoyable neat, as well as in a Manhattan.  In contrast, the E.H. Taylor is not something I particularly enjoyed drinking neat.  It was perfectly unobjectionable, but far from memorable.  At three times the price of the Sazerac, it’s nothing I’d ever buy again. The Sazerac, on the other hand, is not something I’m likely to pass up.


Posted in Rye Whiskey Reviews