David OG and I picked the Sazerac 18 year as our favorite rye of the year, so I'll start by saying that. However, the Sazerac 18 is almost always the best rye every year, so I didn't feel like it needed a big picture and an explanation. I have a bit of problem with this category right now. Rye is in such a transitory state at the moment that it's really difficult to choose seriously when analyzing the best specimen of the year. All of the great ryes that I tasted were super limited, relatively expensive, and almost impossible to find. They were released at the end of the year or not even released at all. I'm talking about bottles like Sazerac 18, Pappy Van Winkle 13, Anchor Hotalings 16, etc. While these whiskies were far and above the best of the bunch, they don't really paint a picture about the year in rye. They didn't carry the load, nor did they represent what most people were drinking.
2011 was about LDI rye. Templeton, Redemption, High West, Willett, Bulleit, etc. It was also somewhat about sourcing some Canadian rye - Whistlepig, Masterson's, Jefferson's. Sazerac and Rittenhouse did make brief appearances, but there was nothing stable or dependable in 2011 besides what I call filler product. Everyone drank Bulleit because Rittenhouse wasn't there. Should Bulleit be the rye of the year? To me, that would be similar to having a lockout in the NBA, playing the season anyway with non-union scrubs, and still awarding a trophy to the best D-League team at the end of the year. Sure, it's still basketball, but we all know who the best players really are. With Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, and Buffalo Trace all out of stock for most of the year, it was really about finding someone to take their place.
However, before I go too far in naming 2011's rye candidates second-rate, there were some new prospects that showed serious potential. Davorin Kuchan's Old World Spirits released a beautiful 1 year old 100% rye that didn't go over board with small barrique aging and still had fantastic flavor. It was a fantastic debut and we all look forward to watching him master the process. Same goes for 1512 Spirits and their newly released 100% rye, rapidly matured for extra richness. While these ryes definitely made an impact, they're of an entirely different breed than the standard bottles we know so well. Rye as we've come to know so far is much like bourbon - namely because there's still a fair amount of corn in the mashbill to add sweetness. Rye in the modern age has been completely devoid of corn. The LDI ryes are all 95% rye with 5% barley. The micro-distillers like Anchor have been working with 100% rye mashbill. The flavors are spicier, more peppery, and the palate far less rich.
Tasting something like Sazerac 18 next to Davorin's Gold Run Rye is much like drinking Buffalo Trace next to Leopold's American Whiskey. Sure, they're both whiskies, but they're not really going for the same flavor profile. It's tough to pick a winner when that's the case. It's kind of like combining the Golden Globes Comedy and Drama awards into one category and then picking the best actors. Oh wait, that's the Academy Awards. No wonder they're meaningless now.