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Sonoma County Rye Whiskey

Review: Sonoma County Rye Whiskey  86/100
a review by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Published April 2, 2016

The Sonoma County Distilling Company is located in Sonoma County, California. The company was founded in 2010 with the intention to bring spirits to the market using a ‘Grain to Glass’ philosophy. The production is done in-house including mashing and fermentation of grains, direct-fire copper pot distillation, maturing the spirits in American oak barrels, as well as bottling and labeling.

Several of their whiskey spirits have hit Alberta store shelves including their Sonoma County Rye Whiskey. According to the information provided to me the whiskey is produced from a mash bill of 100 % Rye, the primary grain being Canadian unmalted rye (80%) with a smaller proportion being malted rye from the UK (20%). Head distiller (and Owner), Adam Speigel, uses natural gas fire heated stills (two 250 gallon Copper Alembic Pot Onion Head Stills and one 125 gallon Copper Alembic Pot Onion Head Still). The is aged for a minimum of one year first in newly charred American Oak barrels (15, 30 and 53 gallon barrels), then finished in old wood. (Some of the whiskeys in the blend are apparently aged for longer than two years.)

The Sonoma County Rye Whiskey is bottled at varying alcohol proofs depending upon the blenders decision for that bottling. My sample bottle is showing me a full 98 proof on the label.

Sonoma Rye SAM_2393In the Bottle  4.5/5

There is much to like about the bottle presentation as the whiskey arrives with a wax dipped cork in an ergonomic ‘bar shelf’ style whiskey bottle. The back of the bottle contains a some useful information about the mash bill (Unmalted Rye and Malted Rye), the suggested serving (neat), as well as some basic tasting notes (Dry Vanilla, allspice and white pepper). We are also provided the Bottling Date (3/30/2015), the Batch No. (7), the number of cases produced (375) and the bottle number (1274).

What we are not told on the label is the age of the whiskey (about one to two years).

In the Glass  8.5/10

When I poured the whiskey into my glass I was happy to see a nice copper-like colour, consistent with a whiskey which has been barreled in new oak. When I tilted the glass and gave it a twirl, the whiskey imparted a light sheen on the inside of my glass. Some medium-sized leglets formed and slid down, however much of the liquid sheen seemed more content to just fade away.

The aroma is full of thick rye notes mingled with woody tones of fresh-cut planks. This is followed by both honeycomb and sweet caramel as well as some bittersweet treacle. There are also firm impressions of baking spices (allspice, vanilla nutmeg, and cinnamon) with a few of chocolate-like notes drifting alongside, and a growing push of damp cigar tobacco. I am impressed. The whiskey seems much older than a one to two-year old spirit, and does not contain the apparent harshness one would expect with this much youth and this strong of an alcohol content (98 proof).

In the Mouth  51.5/100

The whiskey continues to surprise across the palate. Tasting this blind, I would have expected the spirit to be at least 5 years old. I taste a sturdy grain flavour combined with fresh wood, caramel, honey comb and maple. Baking spices seem to ooze out as I taste bits of cinnamon and clove mixed with nutmeg, allspice and a firm vanilla. Sipping the spirit neat is definitely an option as I continue to be surprised at how smooth the whiskey is, and how well the alcohol bite has been tamed.

I added an ice-cube, and decided that this was a mistake as the light sweetness of the spirit disappeared. However, when I added a splash of ginger-ale the whiskey again found its legs and I was quite content. I decided the whisky had perhaps a little stronger range and mixed another cocktail I recently have become acquainted which is called Whoa Nellie! (see recipe below). The result was fabulous and caused me to increase my score by another 1/2 notch.

In the Throat  13/15

The exit is medium length and full of strong toasted rye and rough lumber. A touch more sweetness in the finish would have been welcome, although I am still marveling at the relative smoothness of the young 98 proof spirit.

The Afterburn  8.5/10

My hat goes off to Sonoma County Distilling for breaking one of the stereotypes which I held towards young whiskey spirits. When I read the back of the bottle and found that the distillery was recommending that this spirit be consumed neat, I frankly did not believe it. I was wrong. That is not to say that I would not mix this whiskey, I certainly would as it has much to offer in the cocktail format with its robust rye notes. In fact, my suggested cocktail below is quickly becoming a favourite.

You may read some of my other Whisky Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.


Suggested Recipe

Whoa Nellie SAM_2399The bar drink was apparently put together by Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin ( In the Land of Cocktails) with the assistance of Ted Haigh (Dr. Cocktail) when they were gathered at Lally’s House to celebrate the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina. The name is apparently an homage to Lally’s and Ti Adelaide’s grandmother, Nellie Valentine.

Whoa Nellie!

1 1/2 oz Rye Whiskey (Sonoma County Rye)
1/2 oz Dark Rum (Coruba Dark Jamaican Rum)
1/2 oz Orange Liqueur (Cointreau)
1/3 oz Grapefruit Juice
1/3 oz Lemon Juice
a few dashes of Bitters (Fees Cocktail Bitters)
1/3 oz Sugar Syrup
Grapefruit Twist

Add the ingredients into a metal shaker with plenty of ice
Shake until the outside of the shaker begins to frost
Strain into a cocktail glass
Garnish with a twist of Grapefruit

Please Enjoy Responsibly!

And if  you are interested in more recipes, please click this link (Cocktails and Recipes) for my mixed drink recipes!



As always you may interpret the scores I provide as follows.

0-25 A spirit with a rating this low would actually kill you.
26-49 Depending upon your fortitude you might actually survive this.
50 -59 You are safe to drink this…but you shouldn’t.
60-69 Substandard swill which you may offer to people you do not want to see again.
70-74 Now we have a fair mixing rum or whisky.  Accept this but make sure it is mixed into a cocktail.
75-79 You may begin to serve this to friends, again probably still cocktail territory.
80-84 We begin to enjoy this spirit neat or on the rocks. (I will still primarily mix cocktails)
85-89 Excellent for sipping or for mixing!
90-94 Definitely a primary sipping spirit, in fact you may want to hoard this for yourself.
95-97.5 The Cream of the Crop
98+ I haven’t met this bottle yet…but I want to.

Very loosely we may put my scores into terms that you may be more familiar with on a Gold, Silver, and  Bronze medal  scale as follows:

70 – 79.5    Bronze Medal (Recommended only as a mixer)
80 – 89.5     Silver Medal (Recommended for sipping and or a high quality mixer)
90 – 95         Gold Medal (Highly recommended for sipping and for sublime cocktails.)
95.5+            Platinum Award (Highest Recommendation)


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