The disappointment and redemption of Fleischmann's Straight Rye
It’s mid-March 2013 and I’m about to embark on one of the most disappointing, and yet ultimately most interesting, hunts of my life: the hunt for Fleischmann’s Straight Rye.
I discovered that Fleischmann’s Straight Rye existed, coincidentally, by finding out that it had been replaced. As Sazerac is wont to do, a statement that hinted at an age had been removed and replaced with a bit of nonsense in the same typeface. Straight Rye Whiskey had turned to Mash Rye Whiskey.
A label change would not normally be enough to send me searching for a whiskey. But in the article, Chuck mentioned that it was the only rye made at the Barton distillery and that it is distributed only in Northern Wisconsin. Well, that’s home. And for the next few months every time I went back home, I checked the liquor stores to see if I could find it. And in October 2013, I finally did.
Now, Fleischmann’s, whatever the spirit, is a bottom-shelf product. There is a vodka, gin, rum, brandy and blended whiskey to go along with that rye. But it’s an old name and was born from the same company that birthed the yeast that most baker’s are familiar with. That company was born in 1868. And along with being the first to introduce yeast sold in it’s modern form, they also were distillers. Wikipedia claims that they were America’s first commercial producer of gin but it’s Wikipedia, so take that with a grain of salt.
All that is to say that I really shouldn’t have expected a lot of this product. But, yet, I kind of did. I’d read good reviews of it. The forums at StraightBourbon.com had entire threads dedicated to singing its praises. It couldn’t be terrible, could it?
It couldn’t. It was not terrible. It was close to terrible, but not terrible. It was bad enough that I didn’t want to infuse it or cook with it for fear the flavor would come through. It made the only manhattan that I’ve ever dumped out. But it was better than say, Rebel Yell. So it sat on my shelf. For months. I tried giving it away as a curiosity sample, but felt bad doing it and more often than not cautioned the recipient to not drink it. What could I do? There is no way I can throw away a whiskey, yet it was taking up valuable space on the shelf.
And so it sat. My excitement in a successful hunt turned to disappointment. At least until I traveled to Virginia and visited the A. Smith Bowman distillery (another Sazerac location). As a souvenir, my wife bought a bag of barrel char that she could stick in a container and smell every once in a while. They said if you dumped a tablespoon of whiskey in there every so often, it would retain the smell it came with. Now there was a use for that Fleischmann’s, but 1.75 liters would take a long time to disappear a tablespoon at a time. But it inspired me to try something. Aging bourbon in a second barrel is big right now. It could be another bourbon, a cognac, sherry or even rum barrel. I didn’t have a barrel, but I did have barrel char. And I had a lot of whiskey that I didn’t know what to do with. Hmmm…
I devised an experiment. I set up four mason jars and put a quarter cup of barrel char into each one. I then took added a cup of Fleischmann’s Rye, tightened the lid and put it into a closet, shaking it every day. I strained the first through a series of coffee filters after a week. The next was strained at two weeks, the third at a month and the final at 2 months. I also poured a four ounce sample to use as a control. The results were as follows:
Fleischmann’s Straight Rye Whiskey
Purchasing info: ~$12 for a 1.75L, Northern Lakes Cabin Stop, Hayward, WI (October 2013)
Nose: Silage/grain with hints of mint and cherry
Mouth: Thin, lightly sweet, hints of mint that feel medicinal.
Finish: Gentle with a faint charcoal aftertaste
Thoughts: This was an inexpensive curiosity. I can’t imagine using this for everyday drinking/mixing/cooking. Now that it seems to have been replaced by Mash Rye Whiskey, I doubt anyone other than the Straight Bourbon forum inhabitants will miss it.
Barrel Char Finishing Experiment
- Even after a week’s infusion, this doesn’t nose like the same whiskey. It’s sweeter, showing much more caramel.
- Not much difference between week one and two.
- By one month, the silage from the control sample is gone and the cherries are back, but now they are chocolate covered.
- At two months, the cherries are not only chocolate covered, but dark chocolate covered and joined by rich caramel and char.
- A week made a lot of difference in the mouthfeel. It’s thicker and much sweeter. The bourbon influence is clear.
- At two weeks, the silage flavors are gone. There is more cherry presence with hints of chocolate. Think of the liquid that runs out of the Christmas candy. It’s kinda cherry and kinda chocolate, but not quite either.
- One month: Dark, rich and thick in the mouth. Cherry notes very pronounced with black pepper spice.
- At two months this is like drinking a candy bar: toffee, coconut, nougat, chocolate. And of course that ever present cherry.
- Week one: getting better
- Week two: no real change
- One month: The finish still has hints of the original medicinal mintiness but there is much more warmth and it lasts a lot longer
- Two months: lingering spice and sweetness in the finish. After a bit the mint returns.
After a week or so, you start to notice that there is something interesting going on. It’s not there yet, but you know there is something. At about one month, it’s actually gotten to something I would drink on it’s own. the dichotomy between the thick, rich, spicy sweet mouth and the minty finish is very interesting. At two months, the flavors are even more complex, but they are starting to become muddied. If I were forced to chose one of these to bring to market, I’d go with the one month.
I thought that this purchase was a bust. If this experiment hadn’t yielded something drinkable, I would have dumped it out and not thought about it again. But it turned out to be one of the most interesting redemption stories I’d ever witnessed. In fact, it was good enough that I poured the control and the one and two week infusions together and am reinfusing it. I’m starting at three weeks, but may let it go for another if it isn’t ready yet. I’m now actually quite excited about my bourbon-char finished rye whiskey.