I recently started a discussion about perceived differences on the legendary port finished rye release from High West, A Midwinter Night's Dram. It seems to be fairly common knowledge that is passed around now that they are likely expected to be very similar within any given Act - Act referring to the sequential year in which it was blended. 2022's release, Act 10, dropped around Massachusetts in the latter part of the year in preparation for some great sips in the colder months. I was lucky enough to score not one, but two bottles of this release. I first received Act 10, Scene 2 and immediately opened it to begin learning about this years profile. I wasn't overly crazy for it on my first sip, but the 2nd time I tried it - it was phenomenal. Creamy port like you dream about, layered in gracefully to an already outstanding rye. So when I eventually got my hands on Act 10, Scene 1... I wondered if it might feature the same evolution from glass 1 to glass 2. Surprisingly, it did not...
All this got me to wondering... What are the real differences between the two? Are there any, or is this all just perceived differences in the bottle based on actual differences in my palate day-to-day? I know full well that my palate (and yours, oh faithful reader) varies based on many contributing factors. It's for this reason I try to never review a bottle in-depth upon only tasting it once. Normally I shoot for a minimum of three tastings before I like to offer my thoughts both here and on my Instagram where I share most of my content.
My first endeavor, after a deep google dive didn't turn up anything concrete from High West themselves, was to ask them directly! It just so happens that some of the distillers were manning the Instagram account on the day in which I posed this question & they got back to me with some incredibly insightful information I will share below. For context, I asked a few questions:
Are the scenes in fact indicative of bottling day?
Would you expect any differences in flavors between the scenes of the same act?
Are you able to mix everything in a homogenous way such that your mixing tanks are large enough to satisfy the demand yield for this product?
We are blending and bottling in such large batches that we do not see flavor drift across the Scenes - which yes, are different bottling days. All of the spirit lots are dumped to large tanks and homogenized prior to blending, so we see great consistency across the MWND bottling.
The team also cheerfully added:
To which I raise my glass to you!
Now, me being the skeptical engineer who would rather arm wrestle with some data rather than take anything at face value, I decided this answer (while undoubtedly honest, thorough and thoughtful) didn't quite settle things in my mind. I had to prove it to myself. So here I am - on a bone-chilling cold midwinter night - settled in with two glasses for a double-header review of two pours which are supposed to be the same! Am I just drinking a small sip twice for fun? Will my nose lead me towards one or the other? I'm going to do my best to keep an open mind here and try to throw out any hypothesis that may lead to input bias, but admittedly we're all a little susceptible to that regardless of cognizant effort. In one effort to remove preconceived notions and bias - I had my lovely assistant @amongstthefernsco put each of these in a different glass without me seeing which is which. Both bottles have similar fill levels (each was sipped from exactly 2 times prior to this) and they are both going into a glencairn glass that will be filled to equal levels at the same time. So now that I'm blind to the input, let's analyze the output and see how each of these glasses turn out! For the sake of clarity to you, I will reveal which Scene is which below after I have finished my review.
So join us good ladies and gents. Gather 'mongst thy family and friends, and raise thy glass to winters that are "Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; Brief as the lightning in the collied night." - Lysander, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 1, Scene 1, Wm. Shakespeare
Company on Label: High West
Whiskey Type: A Blend of Straight Rye Whiskeys
Mash Bill Percentages: Undisclosed proportions of 95% Rye, 5% Barley and 80% Rye, 20% Malted Rye
Further identification: A Midwinter Night's Dram & its 'Acts' are a limited yearly release of High West Rendezvous Rye finished in French oak port barrels; this release in particular is the 2022 edition where Scene 1 was bottled on day 1 of bottling and Scene 2 on day 2
Act 10 - Scene 2
Nose: Upon first raising the glass I smell creamy plum. The nose-feel is distinctly syrupy, thick and sweet. Hints of lemon peel, hibiscus and grenadine burst from the liquid below. Similar to how the other glass started I begin to find more dry notes of linen and wax paper. Sea salt encrusted caramel chews begin to pervade my senses. Undulations between dry baking spices like black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon and clove are perfectly reminiscent of a Christmas dinner spent with family. Let's jump in for a sip.
Deep inhales back and forth between both glasses likely make me look rather insane, but they also reveal that this glass has just a bit more bite, effervescence and creamy clout. 'Chugging' through the air in the glass I find that the profile averages out to a light medley of aromas characterized by non-descript citrus, linen or paper, and a light tannic red wine backbone.
Palate: The warming mouthfeel of my first sip fits like a glove as I alternate between the glass below and this one. Plum, blackberry, raspberry and creamy chocolate cake dance in the mouth gently. The citrus characteristics of the rye rise up in a tingling wave of lemon squeezed into a glass of tea in preparation for a classic hot toddy. The linger is such a treat with all the Thanksgiving desserts stopping by for a brief kiss of flavor. Sipping back and forth reveals just how much of a dingus I am, because these whiskeys are damn near identical. The notes above summarize this pour well - it's also damn delicious by the way if that wasn't clear. My last sip is a headshaking treat of orange sherbet, caramel cookie and gingerbread.
Act 10 - Scene 1
Nose: Upon first lifting this glass to my nose I find light linen. The nose-feel here is slightly drying and slower to build aromas than the other glass. After a little digging I begin to find rich chocolate, raisin, plum and charred oak. The creamy characteristics begin to build up speed and heft as the flywheel of the port finish begins to make itself known. More of the dry spices keep pulling the sweet factors back down, burying them in waves of clove, black pepper and a medley of dried fruits. Ah - deep inhales begin to layer in more creaminess here as vanilla knocks over the baking spice rack. Both glasses feel elegant at times and ebb through different waves of experience and memory. It's time for a taste.
Returning to this glass reveals a distinctly more dry experience which smells of clay and Crayola crayons. Now this is getting interesting... Where the palates appear to be converging to the same profile, the noses are actively diverging. Is this just the fickle nature of whiskey? Are temperatures or airflow exchanges across the 1 foot distance that separates these glasses along my desk different enough to be evolving the pours into two silos? Let's keep digging. Okay, as I dig and dig through and exchange absolutely all the air from the rapidly aerosolizing whiskey, I do settle in on a normalized profile of faint lemon peel, linen and grape skins.
Palate: Wow - that is a solid delivery of mulled wine with incredible citrus depth. Mmm. Black forest cake, raspberry jam and all the figgy, jammy pies you can imagine are on full display. This tastes almost identical to the other glass, but the chronology is interestingly a bit jumbled. Oily, viscous buttercream frosting hits first followed by lemon cake that I feel absolutely completes this pour. The finish is long for this slightly lower proof and I'm left with a satisfying simmer of all the dark fruit of this world. My last sip is a sumptuous delicacy of brown sugar, sweet rum and orange cream soda.
Nose: I had to battle through this, but ultimately they proved equivalent
Palate: This was more obvious than the dubious nose, but I'd rate them equivalent
The best way I can describe how I arrived at this finding is that all the same puzzle pieces were there in both glasses - they just fit together in different ways and at different times. It's really a beautiful metaphor for how there's no true 'right' way to experience whiskey. I liken it to how one might imagine Norse mythology evolved over time through verbal storytelling, some of the characters getting misplaced at times, but the core of the lore maintaining its roots and values.
I admittedly did experience both glasses differently, but taken holistically they do seem to be built of the same parts. If you really made me choose, I liked the how the first glass was put together better (Scene 2), which interestingly (or perhaps more astutely, anecdotally) does agree with my preconceived notion of which Scene I liked better. So perhaps there are subtle effects of bottling days on the output, but ultimately anyone who is sipping on either of these Scenes is a winner in my book. There were such interesting nuances to both of these experiences that really puts into perspective how fleeting, fickle and fun exploring whiskey can be. There are almost no hard truths in this world and it gives me a exciting moment (or several hours) to put down math and science (my day job) to just explore the magic of it all. I can definitely see why there might be notions that there are variations where there are not when exploring whiskey because the measurement instrument (you and your palate) are in fact not calibrated for consistency. The blending team over at High West definitely are doing their best work though, often spending weeks at a time tweaking volumes to get things just right. This release is a shining example of that hard work resulting in a delicious product for us enthusiasts to sip on as an "an indispensable part of making it through the long cold winter". I'll be keeping this one Amongst the Whiskey.