By Richard Thomas
One of the best outcomes of American whiskey becoming a truly national industry, with distilleries producing coast to coast for the first time in our history, is the creation of so many regional styles and appellations. One such is Empire Rye, a New York State appellation created by a growing alliance of several craft distillers. When the category was first announced in 2015, I was a little dubious about Empire Rye. That was because the folks behind it stated quite clearly that they interested in allowing member distillers to express their creativity, rather than restricting them by creating a regional style. Since the point of an appellation is to define and protect regional styles, I wondered what–beyond marketing–would the point be?
Then I took a closer look at Empire Rye’s standards, and three features jumped out. First was the requirement that all Empire Ryes be straight whiskeys. The two year minimum age requirement automatically rules out the use of small and tiny barrels, since these would over-oak the whiskey in that time span. Another is the maximum entry proof of 115, below the Federal maximum of 125 proof. Finally, there is the grain requirement that above and beyond the New York State craft requirement that 75% of the total grain be sourced from the state, Empire Ryes are make that 75% all rye. This means Empire Rye whiskeys cannot be low rye, Kentucky style whiskeys. When you add it all up, it’s a distinctive style indeed.
One such rye is from Rochester’s Black Button Distilling, a craft distiller that The Whiskey Reviewer has been covering since the days when all they had to sell was legal moonshine. In Black Button’s case, the mash bill is 94% rye and 6% malted barley (presumably to ensure no one mistakes it for the ubiquitous MGP-sourced 95% rye), and it’s bottled at 84 proof.
A pour of Black Button Empire Rye takes on a light amber coloring in the glass. The nose from that pour carries the scent of the coarse-milled rye grain used to make pumpernickel coupled to vanilla. The flavor follows in this vein: pumpernickel rye, vanilla, a grain of pepper and a pinch of charcoal. The finish is a light one, starting out sweet and spicy, but fading fast onto that grain of pepper. This is a straightforward rye whiskey, but tasty and easy drinking.
Expect to pay $70 to $75.