Masterson’s Straight Rye Whiskey (45% alc./vol.)
October 17, 2011
A carefully crafted panorama of grassy dry grain, moist earth and burlap sacks, along with zingy pepper, blossoming floral vanilla, fragrant leather and tobacco leaves. Spicy Rye. ★★★★★
Seeking to capture a niche in the growing spirits market, 35 Maple, a division of The Other Guys, has introduced an upscale straight rye whiskey called Masterson’s. The strategy? On-premise placements and sales to high-end wine and bottle shops. Let’s pull back some of the layers here. The Other Guys own 35 Maple. The owners of The Other Guys are members of the Sebastiani family. The Sebastianis have a long history as wine makers in the Sonoma Valley. How long? A mere 110 years.
When stonemason Samuele Sebastiani first emigrated from the Tuscany region of Italy to California, he made his living mining the Sonoma hills for cobblestones to pave the streets of nearby San Francisco. During long days cutting stone, Sebastiani realized, that similar to his homeland, if not exactly paved with gold, these hills had much more potential than a source of humble cobblestones. Within nine years he had saved enough money to buy land in Sonoma County. His goal? To plant grapes and establish his own winery. Soon Sebastiani’s vineyard was supplying wine to his neighbours in Sonoma as well as restaurants in San Francisco.
In 1919, as Prohibition approached, a few California winemakers ripped up their vines and planted fruit trees. Most, however, remained in denial and simply went ahead tending their vines in preparation for their anticipated business-as-somewhat-usual 1920 harvest. This seeming foolishness quickly turned into a windfall for vineyard owners as the price of California grapes and grape juice spilled out of control in the face of unquenchable demand. A clause in the Volstead Act, the legislation which defined Prohibition, permitted home wine making. Soon, every square inch of California that would support a grapevine did so – for purely home-based purposes, of course.
Not wishing to interfere in any way with high church rituals or the prescription practices of the medical profession at large, the Volstead Act also permitted the production and sale of sacramental and medicinal wine. The difference between these products was simply the way they were labelled. Before long a huge trade sprung up with pharmacists, and particularly religious leaders, operating high-volume wine stores selling all manner of “wine” to the newly converted and the newly infirm. This perfectly legal trade created many personal fortunes, and it also set the stage for California, with its rapidly expanding vineyards, to become a major player in the world of wine after Prohibition was repealed.
While other Sonoma wineries quickly joined the highly profitable grape juice trade, Samuele Sebastiani alone, chose instead to continue making wine legally for the burgeoning sacramental and medicinal markets. It was a wise move indeed for he was able to use what turned out to be nearly fourteen years of Prohibition to further develop his winery and hone his winemaking skills.
Overall, it is estimated that Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption in the U.S. by about 30% in the period leading up to 1929. However, the stock market crash in October that year–and the ensuing Great Depression–accomplished what no law could do, as sales of alcoholic beverages, including sacramental and medicinal wines, plummeted. Sebastiani supplemented his rapidly declining trade in wine by canning peaches, pears, and nectarines for sale as food.
After Samuele passed on, the business remained in Sebastiani hands until 2008. That was when the fourth generation of the family sold the vineyards and winery to Foley Family Wines. However, winemaking remained in their veins and, in 2010, two fourth-generation Sebastianis, siblings Mia and August, picked up the family torch once more with a new wine enterprise. They called it “The Other Guys.” Remembering earlier family forays into the spirits market with brandy and grappa, The Other Guys launched a spirits division. They gave it its own decidedly non-Sebastiani name: 35 Maple Street. This new division has now begun working with several top spirits makers to create new and unique ultra-premium artisanal spirits. Masterson’s Rye is but the first of what they hope will be many. “This straight rye whiskey will be followed by a botanical gin, aged rum and small batch bourbon over the next year,” said company president, August Sebastiani.
Roughly 4,000 cases of Masterson’s 10-Year-Old Straight Rye are on their way to store shelves in the U.S. The first states to receive their allotments are California, Florida, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois. That said, the whiskey travels extensively before arriving at those destinations; it is distilled in a tiny pot still at Alberta Distillers Limited distillery in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Unique in that it not only meets the U.S. definition for straight rye whiskey, it is distilled from a mash of 100% rye grain. Masterson’s is bottled at 90 proof – 45% alc./vol.
35 Maple named their new straight rye for Canadian-born frontier lawman, William “Bat” Masterson, one of the most famous American Old West personalities. “I wanted to tip our cap to a character from that time,” explains Sebastiani. “Bat Masterson was not only a buffalo hunter, card dealer, U.S. marshal and local lawman, but he retired to New York where he became a prolific sportswriter and newspaperman. Masterson had considerable depth of character, much like our rye whiskey and I’ve always been fascinated by the role that saloons, card games and whiskey played in the gun slingin’ days of the Wild West.”
35 Maple’s move into the spirits market will also allow the company to expand its influence into the flourishing cocktail movement. “We’re seeing lots of new cocktail lounges and old-fashioned speakeasies infiltrating the bar scene, not only in major metropolitan areas, but across the nation,” Sebastiani continues. “It’s a nostalgic lifestyle movement and a perfect fit for our marketing philosophy, which is to focus on high quality, limited-production wines – and, of course, now spirits.”
This really is outstanding rye whisky. So before we get to detailed tasting notes why not compare Masterson’s with some other ultra-premium-quality straight ryes that have recently come on the market?
Compared, for example, with WhistlePig and Jefferson’s, the flavour profile of Masterson’s strongly favours the grain over the barrel. The nose, though floral, is dominated by earth and grain. The Masterson’s palate is broad, ranging from wet clay through roasted grain to gunny sacks, pepper, spice and vanilla before resolving in citric pith. This is a well-balanced, finely crafted rye whiskey, cast in the mould of the ultimate connoisseur’s straight rye – a deliciator’s stolen pleasure intended to be savoured.
WhistlePig (50% alc./vol.) starts big on vanilla and is brutishly masculine, strongly favouring elements of charred new oak over the grain itself. Brusque and indecorous, it is at the same time sublime as if some ancient, filthy and long-forgotten trove of musky spices has suddenly burst, spilling its unrefined but oh-so-precious contents. This is rugged rye whiskey, not so much to dram as to drink.
Jefferson’s (47% alc./vol.) is another matter altogether. Strongly influenced by new-oak barrels the whisky opens up immediately to floral vanilla. These are the sweet, perfumed floral notes that rye spirit is so good at extracting from new oak. It also exhibits an earthy marker that is typical of rye, before finishing in a cleansing grapefruit pithiness. Of the three, Jefferson’s opens most quickly and is by far the most expressive in the nose. Like the others, this is good solid five-star rye whiskey, and like the others, a unique and individual expression of straight rye.
Now here are the details for Masterson’s 10-Year-Old Straight Rye Whiskey:
Nose: A broad range of aromas beginning with dry grain, rye grain, linseed oil and the earthiness of damp Prairie soil. Faintly floral notes that blossom slowly into sweet-scented perfume dissolve in the sweet complex aromas of gunny sacs, saddle leather and fragrant dry tobacco leaves. Very clean defined aromas are reminiscent of a hayloft, with straw, dry grass and grain dust. Along with the floral tones, vanilla pods add a sweetness, punctuated here and there with hints of raspberries. Overall the nose is dominated by the earthy aromas of canvas, wet clay, dry grain along with Chinese herbs. There is a lot of nose here if you give it time.
Palate: Continues the earthy tones of the nose along with loads of very floral vanilla notes. Hot pepper balances neatly against sweetish spicy ginger backed by other sweetish tones including toffee, red licorice, black licorice and a slight generic fruitiness. Dry grain along with blue clay, putty, and hot tobacco reinforce the earthiness. A very complex palate beautifully integrates a range of flavours. The linseed oil of the nose reprises on the palate as artist’s oil paint, but despite this oiliness the oak can be just slightly, though pleasantly, drying leading into a grapefruit pithiness with hints of lime that clean away an array of flavours and refresh the palate for another sip.
Finish: A long finish fades slowly on floral perfume, citric pith, and lasting reminiscences of earth.
Empty Glass: Dry grain and burlap sacs.
$79.00 in U.S. liquor stores. (Lower prices reported at some stores.)
Very Highly Recommended. ★★★★★