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Rested Rye and Reposado: opposite sides of the same coin?

Jack Daniel's Rested Rye Whiskey
Photo: Brown-Forman

When one of the world’s most heralded whiskey producers, Jack Daniel’s of Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey fame, decides to release an Unaged Rye Whiskey followed by a Rested Rye Whiskey, the beverage grapevine starts humming.

What does this mean? Why are they doing this? Is this the new direction in American whiskey? And what does it mean for the iconic flagship of the fleet, Jack Daniel’s Black Label?

Master Distiller Jeff Arnett made a public statement addressing some of those concerns and offering an explanation: it occurred to him that creating a lighter, harmonious, gentler style of whiskey through less barrel maturation, and then basing that lighter style on a leaner, spicier grain---rye---it would make an interesting and unusual whiskey profile. So he did just that.

So this doesn’t mean anything in regards to Jack Daniel’s Black Label---that stays the same and no one is about to change that iconic whiskey. It is, rather, a master distiller experimenting with what is possible with a popular style of whiskey. First there was Unaged. Now there's Rested. This is a 'project in progress' update!

What is “rested rye whiskey” Well, that’s a combination of regulation and stylistic expression. Regulation says it has to be made of at least 51% rye grain (Tennessee Whiskey rules require 51% corn), which is significant because rye is so popular (which means expensive) and in high demand---and the “rested” part means the whiskey is aged for less time than traditional (which is a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels to be labeled “Straight Whiskey”).

But Jack Daniel’s Rested Rye Whiskey is two years old, so it remains a Tennessee Straight Whiskey---it’s simply on the lighter side of a straight, when rye whiskey traditionally ages longer before release to mellow out the leathery, herbal nature of the grain.

While it is difficult to move American whiskey drinkers away from their cherished traditions (heck, look what happened when Maker’s Mark attempted to slightly lower their bottle proof recently), it is possible to do so. The “Rye Revival” is proof of that. While rye whiskey had been at one time in our history the prevailing style of whiskey, it faded steadily in the public imagination and became a second-class citizen to all those bourbon and Tennessee whiskey drinkers out there. Now it’s all the rage, once again, and fetching premium prices at that. Some prognosticators are even predicting a looming whiskey shortage if demand continues at the current pace.

The relatively sudden and explosive growth of flavored whiskey saw a stampede of producers getting in on that action, with honey, caramel, maple and cinnamon-spice flavors racking up huge sales. One would assume the younger drinking population, having grown up on flavored vodkas in all their dazzling profusion, naturally adapted to the idea of flavoring whiskey accordingly.

So, is it time for a lighter, brighter style of whiskey? Could be; but we really won’t know until the buying public weighs in with their voting dollars.

A Tequila connection, or simply coincidence?
Ironically enough, the idea of a “rested rye” may have come in part from….tequila. Tequila for a long while was a simple, clean, inexpensive, quickly made and unaged white spirit from agave: Blanco or Silver. Then, as it became more popular, customers wanted different expressions of tequila. But the possibilities for variation were somewhat limited---essentially, you could influence the tequila flavor profile in one of three ways: 1) where the agave originated, either the spicy style of Lowlands or the fruity/flowery flavor of the highlands, Los Altos; 2) how you distill the tequila and how “refined” the product tastes as a result; and 3) how you chose to mature the tequila, and for how long.

All three methods are used, but the one that gets the most attention and probably has the most obvious impact, is the maturation process. The tequileños discovered that if you took the blanco tequila and placed it in used barrels---usually American whiskey barrels---for a short time, 2-12 months, the resulting tequila would be rounded, mellow, with all the harsh edges beveled out. Thus was born “Reposado”---not aged, mind you, but “rested”, gentled, reposing quietly until lightly tamed.

They also found that after about one year in the barrel, the tequila altered its nature once again, and became more expressive of the barrel, with the whiskey elements of caramel and tobacco and chocolate and leather wrapped around the natural herbaceousness of the agave. This markedly different style became Añejo. Later, another style with even more barrel age emerged, Extra-Añejo, with a requirement of three years or more of barrel aging.

Whiskey had already developed along that arc of maturation, from a white spirit to a slightly gentler “rested” and softer spirit and finally to a rich and full-flavored dark brown spirit---until the entire perception of whiskey was that mode. Tequila, a much younger spirit on the world stage, is still going through its metamorphosis, and no one knows, yet, what it will become.

Meanwhile, circling back, perhaps the “reposado” concept of slight barrel maturation to mellow a young and brash tequila without overwhelming it with wood stimulated Jeff Arnett and the folks at Jack Daniel’s to experiment with a limited release to see how the faithful core of Jack Daniel’s followers would respond to the “rested” style of whiskey.
Of course, it could be simply crass commercialism, considering a shorter aging regimen for whiskey would drastically lower productions costs: barrels and time are expensive propositions and shortening that process would put more whiskey on the market and more money in the bank. (It should be noted here that parent company Brown-Forman owns both Jack Daniel's and Casa de Herradura Tequila, and many tequilas are aged in former Jack Daniel's barrels.)

Jack Daniel’s has done an excellent job of maintaining devout customer loyalty to its brand, and they’ve done that by hewing closely to tradition. There’s a reasonable doubt that the company would potentially harm its profound reputation through cashing in. And even the staunchest brand needs a little revitalization from time to time (witness Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire, its two entries into the flavored whiskey category.)

We’ll see. If a “rested rye” pleases the customers, it will survive. If not, it will likely remain a limited release or specialty item…or quietly disappear from the market. In either case, the customer wins, because the customer decides.

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