New Riff Winter Whiskey was an unexpected but welcome last-minute limited edition for 2020, and it’s the best thing I tasted this first full week of 2021. We’re going to dive into what makes it so interesting, but first, a little background.
The wintertime and holiday special release bottle is a small but growing category for American Whiskey. Utah’s High West has Midwinter Night’s Dram. Colorado’s Stranahan’s has Snowflake. And now, Kentucky’s New Riff has Winter Whiskey—a delicious whiskey with a quirky mash bill.
Oh, this isn’t your standard New Riff mash bill—between releases of the Backsetter and Maltster recipes, we’re not sure there is a standard right now so much as a stable. But this isn’t just a tweaked version of the same old thing; Winter Whiskey is a lot weirder than that—weirder than most everything they’ve put out this year.
The New Riff Winter Whiskey mash bill has the following breakdown, according to New Riff:
65 percent Corn
20 percent Malted Oats
7 percent Pale Ale Malt
5 percent Steel Cut Raw Oats
3 percent Chocolate Malt
Now, in the whiskey world, some of my favorite bottles are on this spectrum. Stout and oatmeal finished whiskeys are a cool rising trend, and chocolate malt in whiskey has been delicious for me since my first taste of Glenmorangie Signet, and since.
But the unique mashbill of this whiskey is about more than chocolate malt and oats—it’s about rejiggering the balance of their bourbon to account for—and replace—rye. They do that with depth and nuttiness, instead of spice and earth.
Winter Whiskey is similar to a lot of whiskeys, but exactly like none. It’s familiar to their standard small batch, but nuttier. If you taste this whiskey blind, you might almost suspect it’s a wheated whiskey—the oats have a rounding effect on the palate, and that malt character is more nutty than spicy.
It’s unusual on the tongue—grain forward with buttery sweetness that recalls syrup-drenched pancakes, and yet also with hints of nougat and oatmeal cream pie.
If I have a criticism of New Riff Winter Whiskey, it’s that I hope they didn’t bottle everything for 2020. I’d love to see it at the 6-year mark, or higher in future releases. Right now it’s precariously balanced, showing great flavor development, but a couple more years in oak could bring out those chocolate and hazelnut notes with more oak character. A fudgy texture, some additional brulee and vanilla notes—it would be outstanding to see that developed for future batches.
For now, this $50 bottle is a tasty treat served neat, and a lovely way to warm yourself from the inside out until the cold weather is gone again.