When Colorado’s Old Elk Distillery needed an experienced master distiller, they tapped 40-year, 280 million bottle veteran Greg Metzke. His illustrious career at Midwest Grain Products (MGP), arguably the most prominent craft bourbon and rye producer in America, set Old Elk on a seemingly unstoppable path to success. The result? The distillery has achieved a streak of “best whiskey” accolades spanning media, competitions, and individual raters.
With a wide array of whiskeys in their arsenal, their ryes and cask-finished bourbons have captured my attention. Those who follow me regularly know I’m a malt whiskey guy, but Old Elk has become a guilty pleasure (though I’m not sure why it has to be “guilty”)! So when I had the opportunity to sample Old Elk’s Straight Rye Whiskey, I jumped at the chance. Scoring 96 (Extraordinary/Ultimate Recommendation) in the 2020 Ultimate Beverage Challenge and rating inclusion in their 100 Top Spirits, the 95/5 (rye/malted barley) mash bill undergoes a process dubbed “slow cutting” that reduces heat and preserves the fine esters that would otherwise evaporate.
Pouring a deep amber, the whiskey exudes intense aromas of vanilla, winter spices, caramel, bitter melon, honey, and cooked stone fruits. Swirling releases hints of cherry pie filling, cranberry sauce, pie crust, and leather. The mouthfeel is meaty but surprisingly mellow for its 50% ABV. Initial flavors include vanilla chews, winter spices, molasses, burnt sugar, buttered rye toast, unsweetened cocoa powder, plus hints of boysenberry syrup, tart cherry, oak, and distant peppered bacon. The finish is long and silky, releasing more intense dark cherry flavors, smoke, leather, citrus, and then burnt brown sugar.
Even for a Scotch guy, the Straight Rye is magnificent. However, I’m even more excited by their cask expressions, both bourbon, and rye. Taking a cue from Scotch distilleries, Old Elk released three beastly good cask finishes: Port, Cognac, and Rum. Like the straight rye, these expressions age at least five years but finish maturation in their respective spirit casks. They all exhibit a clear Old Elk backbone, but their mash bills combine with barrel attributes to create impressive results.
The Port-cask-finished bourbon (51% corn, 34% barley, 15% rye) opens with a ripe fruit and honeyed nose, along with notes of apples, plum juice, Meyer lemon, and roasted nuts. Oak-barrel and wine-must are notable, especially in the emptied glass. Despite a noticeably higher proof (108), it has a round and slightly oily sense. More nuttiness and a significant barley cereal presence lead to fresh lemon balanced by candied cherry sweetness. The finish reintroduces the port grapes with a warm rush of brown sugar, baked fruit, more oak, and then a hint of smoke. Quite rich but nicely integrated.
The Cognac-cask bourbon also has a 51/34/15 mash bill, and like the Port finish, the high-barley mix is perfect for a Scotch lover. The oak-wine-barrel nose is quite notable, though slightly less prominent, combining with intense nutty-vanilla, bright cherry juice, fresh lemon zest, and winter spice aromas. On the tongue, there’s a bit more heat (109.7 proof), but it’s not “hot.” Barley cereal and honey lead the flavors, with notes of roasted cashews, “flower shop,” milk chocolate, and ripe black grapes. The finish shows some smoke and brown sugar, plus hints of spicy rye and cooked oats. The finish is long and luscious.
My absolute favorite of all is the Rum Cask Rye. Like the Straight Rye, this 95/5 rye-to-barley ratio mash bill opens with a giant kick of vanilla on the nose, with hints of orange candy, mint, honeysuckle, coriander, caramel, and oak. Slightly hotter in sensation (101 proof), it’s also round, offsetting the heat. Vanilla and caramel follow into the taste, backed by cigarette tobacco, black pepper, grilled pineapple, burnt sugar, candied lemon rind, and toasty caraway bread. The finish is warm and slightly sweet, lingering to a luxuriously drying end.
It’s clear that Mr. Metzke brought his “A” game to Old Elk. These four whiskeys are quite good and almost, ALMOST, convince me to jump from the Scotch train (not)! That said, I’m so happy I had the chance to explore, and I’ll be watching for their Wheated Bourbon, the sherry-cask finish, and anything else of theirs I can find!