Kentucky’s New Riff prides itself on putting a “new riff” on tried-and-true American whiskey traditions. As more and more craft distilleries push the creative limit to stand out on the shelves, these “riffs,” like their use of malted rye, have started to seem a little less innovative. Still, New Riff has kept a few unique whiskey expressions up their sleeve, releasing them periodically as limited editions. We missed out on Balboa Rye, the first such release distilled from a rare, heirloom rye strain.
For their second limited edition release, New Riff is upping the uniqueness factor considerably with a pair of offerings: Backsetter Bourbon and Backsetter Rye. These whiskeys are made just like New Riff’s standard bourbon and rye with one big, smoky exception. During their production, the “backset” used during fermentation came from a unique distillation in which the malted barley in the bourbon recipe and the malted rye in the rye recipe were peat-smoked. That’s definitely unique, but we’re talking about a pretty small amount of peat here. How much can that really influence the flavor of these whiskeys? Apparently a lot.
New Riff Backsetter Bourbon – I don’t get a whole lot of smoke on the nose, but it’s definitely not the classic sweet and spice of the standard offering. All of that has been muted by a savory aroma of charcoal briquettes, beef jerky, and barbecue burnt ends. As things open in the glass, more sweet caramel finally emerges but with a thick lacing of wood ash alongside it. The palate sees even less of the peat’s influence, but it’s still impossible to miss. Vanilla cream and minty rye spice are balanced well against notes of charred meat and cigar smoke with alternating waves of sweet and smoky. The generous finish turns more classic with baking spice and butterscotch notes, but a touch of salty smoke lingers. Unique for sure and surprisingly enjoyable. 100 proof. A- / $50
New Riff Backsetter Rye – On the nose, the smoke has dulled the brightness in the standard rye offering, adding in its place notes of toasted wood, matchheads, and rye bread. The peat tinges the overall aroma with a medicinal iodine note that I hadn’t noticed in the bourbon. On the palate, the spiciness of the rye combined with a stale smokiness from the peat makes the initial experience a bit confusing. The mid-palate sees more balance with clove and cinnamon discernible amid heavily charred barbecue and creosote notes, and things really begin to come together on the finish, albeit a bit late, with peppery meats and sweeter baking spice. 100 proof. B / $50
The Backsetter set will be easier to come by than the Balboa rye (about 5400 bottles total) with distribution in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, California, and Washington, D.C.