High West Midwinter’s Night Dram (commonly referred to as MWND among enthusiasts) is the most anticipated release coming out of High West each year.
The first “Act” was released in the winter of 2013 and each subsequent year has seen a new Act. Since Act 3 (the 2015 release), High West started to create multiple batches for that release called “Scenes.”
Act 3 had 3 Scenes but it has since expanded to as many as 6 in subsequent years. The reason behind splitting the Acts into Scenes might revolve around the limited size of the blending tanks inside of High West’s facility in Park City, Utah.
If you didn’t know by now, there was a Great Schism at High West regarding their products between 2017 and 2018. This is when their supply of 16 year old Barton Rye Whiskey ran dry.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that those old barrels of Barton were in almost EVERYTHING they made unless it was labeled as a bourbon. Even Bourye contained this Barton rye for a long time!
High West must have been anticipating they would run out someday because in 2018 they began to substitute their own rye whiskey that they distilled in Utah into their products. Based on the 2018 specs of Double Rye! and Rendezvous Rye, the age of their own rye whiskey ranged from four to seven years old.
Since Midwinter’s Night Dram was essentially Port-finished Rendezvous Rye with 4 more proof points, the inclusion of this young rye whiskey was expected to bring dramatic changes to the overall profile.
If you use the internet archives website “The Wayback Machine,” you can go back and read the specs on any High West product produced throughout the years.
You can also see how much their website has changed over the years too. One of the more interesting things I observed is that Act 6’s release in 2018 seems to suggest that High West still included the famous Barton rye whiskey in that year’s release.
However, Act 6 als saw High West’s own 80% rye/20% malted rye mash bill make its way into the blend (for a total of 4 rye whiskies used in that year’s blend!). So even though most people know that all other High West products stopped using that rare juice in 2018, MWND apparently still had some in it.
From Act 7 to 10, High West’s website has listed the components of MWND as being a blend of MGP’s 95/5 rye whiskey recipe and their own 80/20 recipe (80% rye, 20% malted rye).
They give no age statements for either rye whiskey, but it is safe to assume the MGP component still is around six years old and the High West distillate likely falls in line with what that year’s Rendezvous Rye recipe says they use.
Each year since 2019, High West has listed on their website that Rendezvous Rye is a blend of rye whiskies aged between four and seven years. Let the fact sink in that MWND costs over $100 per bottle and legally couldn’t wear an age statement on the front label saying it was older than four years old.
Before we get on with tasting the differences between these batches, let’s talk about the finishing barrels themselves. For years, High West had listed that the rye whiskey blend was “Aged in new, charred, white American oak and finished in French oak port barrels.”
Then in 2022 – when Act 10 was announced – they changed the wording on the press release to read that the blend was made up of “Rendezvous Rye finished in a combination of Ruby and Tawny port barrels sourced from Portugal.”
Some reviewers out there speculated that MWND changed its composition for Act 10 because the press release no longer mentioned the whiskey was finished in French Oak barrels. I don’t think that is the case, though. In the years prior, I’ve always been told that High West was using both Ruby and Tawny Port casks to finish MWND in.
The fact that “French Oak” was used in the description was likely because the oak used to create those Ruby and Tawny Port barrels probably were harvested in France.
So just because High West doesn’t necessarily use the term French Oak anymore doesn’t mean that they did some big change. But tasting each one might reveal more about what’s true and what’s not true.
Now that the history lesson of MWND is out of the way, it’s time to taste through the differences from the last six years. What I’m going to try and figure out what changed between the Acts and how much of a difference the missing Barton rye really makes.
Each Act was sampled in a glencairn and the comparison was done all in one sitting to reduce variables. Here goes nothing!
2017 – Act 5, Scene 3
Website Description: A blend of older rye whiskeys ranging from 5 to 19 years
95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP
53% rye, 37% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery
80% rye, 10% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery
Nose: The nose is amazing and starts off this 6-way comparison on the right foot. Stewed stone fruits, apple cider vinegar and sweet port wine provide a complex and rich scent that beautifully accompany the rye whiskey scents of pine, ginger tea and dill.
The wood notes are also rich and well aged. It’s hard to find anything to dislike about this nose.
Palate: The fruit and rye notes are just as well integrated on the tongue. Port wine adds just the right amount of sweetness with complimentary orange/lemon zest and cherry juice.
Brown baking spices add complexity but not as much heat while crystalized ginger and peppermint herbal notes follow through the rest of the way. Oak and tobacco add a nice tannic depth to the overall blend.
Finish: The rye spices on the finish are a bit more pronounced than the port wine. There are herbal black tea notes and more peppermint yet the silky sweet port wine notes add sweetness and extra character to a really well-done finish. I’m impressed.
2018 – Act 6, Scene 2
Website Description: A blend of older Straight Rye whiskeys ranging in age from 5 to 19 years.
95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP
80% rye, 20% malted rye from High West Distillery
53% rye, 37% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery
80% rye, 10% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery
*Of Note, the High West website still claimed as of December, 2018 that their Rendezvous Rye recipe consisted of the following Straight Rye whiskeys: 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP; 53% rye, 37% corn, 10% from Barton Distillery; 80% rye, 10% corn, 10% barley malt from Barton Distillery.
There is no mention of High West’s own rye whiskey making its way in. My assumption is that the person updating the website recipes did not go back and change this even though the change already occurred in early 2018.
Nose: The nose on this one does not seem nearly as sharp and powerful as Act 5. There are scents of sweet vanilla, light herbal notes like mint and tarragon, wildflower honey, sweet hay and cherry blossoms. Scents of a “Hot Toddy” also prevail.
Palate: Act 6 is much sweeter than Act 5, perhaps because it was finished for longer in the port casks. Rye spices and port combine to create a sort of menthol-forward cherry cough syrup taste while Earl Gray Tea adds a subtle layer of complexity. I can find a bit of chocolate as its mixed with a bit of chili pepper, black pepper, cinnamon and mint.
Finish: For all Acts, I find the dill note that is so often associated with MGP rye whiskey to not be a factor… except here in Act 6.
There is still a powerful sweetness from the palate which tames a lot of the herbal notes though, so it’s not like it gets carried away. I do find another telltale MGP note at the end which is pine (needles). But it’s the sweet oak wood character that really gets me going.
It’s not as powerful as Act 5, but it’s a beauty. I attribute it to the last year that the 16 year Barton was incorporated in the blend.
2019 – Act 7, Scene 6
Website Description: A blend of Straight Rye Whiskies including 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP and 80% rye, 20% malted rye from HWD. Website Description for 2019 Rendezvous Rye says that it contains 4 to 7 year old rye whiskey that is a mix of sourced and in-house distilled ryes.
Nose: Compared to Acts 5 and 6, the rye notes on Act 7 come off as much sharper. The port wine notes are affected by this and are somewhat secondary when you put your nose up to the glass.
It’s still a pleasant nose and identifiable as Midwinter’s Night Dram, but it’s likely the youth that is creating this difference. Sharp cinnamon, mint and oregano and honey combine with the fruit notes that come with the port wine.
Palate: Just like the nose was, rye notes seem much stronger than the port wine on the tongue. There are still some fruity flavors to be found, but as a whole, dry oak, sharp cinnamon, peppermint and a little bit of citrus zest are most noticeable.
Finish: A mix of sweet and savory notes linger on the tongue. There is a mix of green herbal notes and and red wine. The spice is more balanced and less harsh than it was on the palate.
The finish is perhaps one of the most rye-forward out of all the Acts from 5 to 10. That seems to be the theme of this batch in particular.
2020 – Act 8, Scene 4
Website Description: A blend of Straight Rye Whiskies including 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP and 80% rye, 20% malted rye from HWD. Website Description for 2020 Rendezvous Rye says that it contains 4 to 7 year old rye whiskey that is a mix of sourced and in-house distilled ryes.
Nose: Bold, dark fruits speak to a rather eloquent nose all around. The port is lively and covers up any youthful rye notes. Christmas fruit cake, cinnamon pinwheels, plum pudding, sweet wine. It’s a fantastic nose!
Palate: Classic MGP rye notes stick out to me first. Pine needles, citrus zest, peppermint, sassafras, grapefruit. Rich port wine notes follow, but aren’t as sweet as I was expecting. That’s still fine with me because it allows the rye to speak louder.
As the session goes on, more botanical notes pop up with a couple of herbal flavors showing the way. Almost like drinking a green health drink of sorts with mint, cucumber, wheatgrass and the like. The “red” notes still linger though and make the each sip extra special.
Finish: Oak, cooked stone fruits, a bit of tobacco and some red wine notes. Warm and inviting all the way down. Pine and mint stick around too.
2021 – Act 9, Scene 2
Website Description: A blend of Straight Rye Whiskies including 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP and 80% rye, 20% malted rye from HWD. Website Description for 2021 Rendezvous Rye says that it contains 4 to 7 year old rye whiskey that is a mix of sourced and in-house distilled ryes. The review website Whiskey Wash claims that the 2021 Rendezvous Rye, which is what MWND starts out as, contains rye whiskies ranging from 4 to 9 years old.
Nose: The nose is sweet and very wine forward. Scents of Murray’s Spiced Cherry Jam combine with sweet red wine. They are both amped up in the spice category with notes of gingerbread and soft baking spices. There’s also a hint of mint, but it’s very mild.
Palate: The Port wine is very front and center upon first sip. The rye whiskey notes are definitely in the background, but don’t seem to be taking away from the enjoyment of each sip.
The sweet wine notes play nicely with pine needles, brown sugar mint and ginger. There’s even a lovely mix of black tea and tobacco as the sip goes on. This is definitely Christmas in a bottle.
Finish: The finish is both velvety smooth and spicy at the same time. The description “extremely well-balanced has been underlined a few times in my notebook because everything just works together in the glass. Lingering flavors like spices, gingerbread and a handful of tannins warm my throat all the way down.
2022 – Act 10, Scene 5
Website Description: A blend of Straight Rye Whiskies including 95% rye, 5% barley malt from MGP and 80% rye, 20% malted rye from HWD. Website Description for 2021 Rendezvous Rye says that it contains 4 to 7 year old rye whiskey that is a mix of sourced and in-house distilled ryes.
The review website Whiskey Wash claims that the 2022 version of Rendezvous Rye is a blend of straight rye whiskeys ranging between 4 to 6 years in age” The press release does not indicate that French Oak was used and instead says “A Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 10 showcases [High West’s] flagship Rendezvous Rye finished in a combination of ruby and tawny port barrels sourced from Portugal.”
Nose: Sweeter smelling than MWND Act 8 and 9, but also a tad less oaky too. Honey Grahams cereal, floral scents and cinnamon biscuits.
Fruit notes abound with sweet cherries, plums and peach preserves. There are some nice oak notes lingering in the background, but nowhere near as close as Act 5.
Palate: The rye stands out quite a bit overall. I was expecting more of the port to cover it up. It comes off as youthful and prickly. Clove, lemongrass, cinnamon, pumpernickel bread.
Lots of stone fruit too. The wine notes are much dryer overall than I thought they’d be and the cinnamon doesn’t help as much. I would imagine the High West-distilled Rye Whiskey is the culprit for every negative taste in this bottle.
Finish: The oak on the finish is quite dry. There are lots of aggressive spices like cinnamon, allspice and clove. The fruits subside a bit and the Port wine sweetness struggles to fight back to make sure the finish is not a negative experience.
I walked into this review with the assumption Act 7 would be pretty bad followed by each batch getting progressively better since High West had some time to allow their own barrels (and MGP’s) to age a bit longer.
What I ended up finding was that Act 7, 8 and 9 all still tasted pretty good for not having the Barton Rye Whiskey included any longer. In fact, I would say that Acts 8 and 9 were the biggest surprises of all while Act 10 definitely had something about it that deviated from the rest.
Since the press release and website information (along with the Whiskey Wash’s write up) differ on what exactly Act 10 is made up of, it’s hard to nail down one exact reason why it all seemed to decline.
If I had to take a stab at it, I would say that the finishing barrels were either worn out from overuse or that if they were newly sourced and that the Port style/producer had changed. The Port was definitely thinner and the youthful rye whiskey was harder to disguise.
There was a rumor I heard that the High West release of Midwinter’s Night Dram “Encore” (the one that used only White Port barrels to finish the rye whiskey in) was supposed to be a part of Act 10’s final blend.
But something went wrong with either MWND or Encore and they scrapped the idea. In the end, they were both made into two separate releases. This could point to the fact that MWND was going through a big change-up for 2022 and both final products weren’t really what the blenders at High West envisioned.
Even if High West were to dispute this, there’s no denying that something changed for Act 10.
We’re likely witnessing MWND’s twilight years as it rides off into the sunset of famous whiskies that just couldn’t maintain their once-hallowed status.
This kind of stuff happens all the time to producers that became famous from the whiskey they once sourced. I can’t fault them too much because it seems like they’ve made an attempt to keep the quality up as much as they could.
This was evident to me by the steady improvement of Acts 8 and 9. But if Act 10 is any indication, MWND no longer belongs in the category of desirable annual releases. I’m sure me saying that will have no sway on the die-hards of the brand or the flippers that buy up as many bottles as they can to flip.
But for anyone else that’s on the fence about if they should hunt a bottle down to call their own for $250, please don’t. First of all, the $250 secondary price is $100 more than what they were going for just 2 years ago.
I’ve already mentioned that they’re getting progressively worse too, so this just doesn’t make sense. Instead, if you are really fiending for the taste of port (or fortified wine in general) finished rye whiskey, there are plenty of other choices out there.
Many have suggested brands like Sagamore Spirit, Smooth Ambler Old Scout and the upcoming Barrell Craft Spirits Private Release Rye Whiskey series are worthy competitors – with higher proofs and lower prices to boot. It’s just not worth your time anymore.
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