I’m going to start out by saying that there is no other whiskey on the market that compares to Leopold Bros. Three Chamber Rye Whiskey. There’s an excellent short documentary about it on Youtube, which gets deeper on the background than I will here, but the short version is this: this is a rye whiskey made with a unique still (made just for this project) from an heirloom variety of rye (which Todd Leopold had to get from a seed bank and work with a local farm to produce). I recently bought a bottle and tasted it, which I’ll write about below – but first, to properly appreciate this whiskey, there is some backstory.
Before prohibition, rye whiskey was America’s alcoholic drink of choice – the most widely-consumed liquor in the country. There were problems, however, with shady characters selling products as “rye whiskey” that were knock-offs or even dangerous (to the point that it killed people). This is why you have the “Bottled in Bond” act, which was meant to ensure a baseline level of quality for any product so labeled. You’ll see this on rye whiskeys today – the Three Chamber Rye is actually bottled in bond, as is Rittenhouse (which we’ll talk more about later). All this is to say that after counterfeiting and consumer deception had become enough of an issue, there was a movement to provide more complete and accurate information to consumers.
In order to accurately label rye whiskey, though, it needed to be defined – and this is what led the IRS to do a survey of distilleries in order to establish the standards by which something could be labeled as “rye whiskey.” Todd Leopold is apparently the type of guy that reads old IRS documents for fun, and during one of these recreational reading sessions he realized that all of the distilleries surveyed were using a “three chamber” still. He’d never heard of this before, and did a deep dive to figure out what exactly it was – leading him to eventually commission a recreation of this type of still from Vendome, a well-known supplier of stills to the whiskey industry. The unique process of using this still the first thing that makes this whiskey unique.
During the process of discovering and leveraging this pre-prohibition distilling technique, Todd also went through the trouble of figuring out what kind of rye producers might have used to make whiskey at that time. This led him to work with a seed bank and local farmers to get Abruzzi rye (the heirloom variety) and begin growing it for use in this whiskey, which is the second thing that makes it unique. It turns out that rye had, over time, been bred for great yields of starch, which in turn reduced some of the flavor-creating aspects of the grain – so this old rye was significantly different from the modern type used in rye whiskey today.
In short – rye used to be the most prolific type of whiskey in America, and it was very different back then, but the differences in production and taste were lost to time. By using reproductions of the old stills and heirloom grain varieties, though, we’re able to step back in time and taste something similar to what a person in the late 1800s may have experienced..
It took some work for me to procure this whiskey – it has very limited distribution, and isn’t available in Illinois yet. I pre-ordered a bottle online and had it shipped to my in-laws’ home in Wisconsin, and through a series of complex logistical maneuvers, got it back to my home in Chicago. I happened to buy a bottle from the first release, which is labeled as a “Collector’s Edition” (my bottle was #2387 of 5280) and sold for $300. I defrayed this cost by splitting it with a friend, and I’m happy to report that the regular edition is a bit cheaper (but still pricey) at $240. The Three Chamber Rye is Bottled in Bond at 50% ABV, which means it is aged a minimum of 4 years. To help us highlight how this whiskey is different, my friend and I tasted it next to Rittenhouse Rye (an affordable bartender’s favorite) and High West Whiskey Double Rye (a younger but still well-regarded whiskey).
I was hoping that for $300 the Three Chamber Rye would be something special – and it did not disappoint. The nose was very different from the other ryes that we tasted, with very strong vegetal, earthy, grassy notes, almost like the type of fresh rye bread you might find at a co-op or farmer’s market. You really smell the grain here, whereas the High West was mostly alcohol on the nose, and the Rittenhouse had a pretty down the middle whiskey smell. I can’t overstate how different and pleasantly surprising this was.
The strong rye notes carry through to the taste of the whiskey, which is smooth and easy-drinking. It wasn’t as spicy as the Rittenhouse or High West, and it had a much more lingering and bitter aftertaste. Once again it was very complex, with the earthy, vegetal flavors carrying through. The Three Chamber Rye very much tastes like an agricultural product, and you can tell that it came from something living – which doesn’t sound crazy until you realize this isn’t the case for most whiskey. While the Rittenhouse is very good and similar on paper (Bottled in Bond at 50% and aged 4+ years), it’s much more processed and refined. It’s almost like the difference between fresh homemade pasta and a box of dry pasta from the grocery store – they’re interchangeable in the same dish, but one is a much more elevated experience.
The prominence of the grain reminded me of some mezcals I’ve had, where the flavor of the agave and the grassy notes really came through, even though this is a very different type of drink. I’m hoping it kicks off a movement for whiskey producers to think more about what is going into the still, from the farms through the grain processing. You’ll see some producers do “estate” liquors like this (Appleton Estate Rum, small mezcal producers), but my admittedly limited experience with American whiskey hasn’t included anything similar. This is an excellent whiskey, the production of which was more methodical and thorough that anything else I’ve encountered. If you have the luxury of being able to afford a bottle of Three Chamber Rye, I highly recommend it – hopefully it becomes more widely available soon.