FEW Immortal Rye, a new release from the Evanston, Illinois-based distiller, is the answer to a question we’d never asked but wished we had: Why don’t people proof whiskey with tea?
Immortal Rye starts life as FEW’s cask-strength Straight Rye Whiskey before being cut to 46.5% ABV with the addition of cold-extracted 8 Immortals tea, a Dancong oolong sourced from Colorado’s The Tea Spot. FEW Spirits Founder and Master Distiller Paul Hletko believes this is the first instance of tea being used to proof a whiskey.
However, it’s not the first time that FEW has harnessed a caffeinated beverage for the purpose of whiskey dilution. In 2019 FEW launched Cold Cut Bourbon, which employed cold brew coffee to proof the maker’s cask-strength bourbon.
“We were so excited about the result that it was natural to start looking around for other things to proof down cask-strength whiskey,” Hletko tells Bevvy. “After doing coffee, playing around with tea made sense.”
But first, Hletko had to find his tea, which is where the Denver-based tea purveyor comes in.
“Their founder, Maria Uspenski, is extremely knowledgeable and took us through 10 or 12 teas: green teas, Lapsong souchong teas from the Wuyi region in the province of Fujian in China, pu’er teas from the Yunnan province, you name it,” says Hletko.
After some trial and error, the distiller decided on 8 Immortals. The high-end Dancong oolong comes from a humid, mountainous patch of China’s Guangdong province, and is grown at an altitude of 2,000 feet by a small family-run operation. According to Hletko, its complex flavors meshed nicely with the fruit notes already present in FEW’s Straight Rye Whiskey.
“With the 8 Immortals tea in particular, you get richness, herbaceous qualities, dragon fruit, peach, mango, papaya, and honey layered on top of the fruit flavors that anyone who has tried FEW Straight Rye will be familiar with: plum, pear, tart cherry.”
From my own experience, I found FEW Immortal Rye to uncannily embody both an oolong tea and a rye whiskey at various points. Its aroma was at once distinctly rye with vanilla, caramel, dry oak, and rye spice, but also featured peach, jasmine, and the floral and herbal aromas most often encountered while holding up a cup of steamy oolong tea.
The palate kicked off with the familiar-enough rye notes of vanilla and cherry, but the herbaceous, incense-like flavors at the center again made me feel as if a cup of tea were in my hands. But just as I’m questioning reality, the familiar, satisfying snap of rye spice at the back reminds me that I’m still drinking whiskey (and that it’s 93 proof).
I also enjoyed it in an Old-Fashioned, where its dual spiced qualities—incense and rye—made for a wonderfully complex, no-fuss dram. Hletko has a few favorite applications of his own.
“I personally like to keep it simple: Whiskey Highball with a FEW Immortal Rye base and a splash of quality club soda over fresh ice,” he says. “The flavor profile of the whiskey is a unique one, but there’s more than enough rye spice to hold up in classics like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan.”
When asked whether he’s experienced backlash from any whiskey purists who may object to the use of anything but water for proofing, Hletko says that a backlash hasn’t materialized—and if it did, it wouldn’t bother him.
“It’s a little early to tell at this point, but we’re comfortable with the reality that not everything we do is going to resonate with every whiskey drinker,” he says.
In fact, it looks like more experiments in proofing outside the straight water realm may be in FEW’s future.
“The short answer is yes—and I promise I’m not being coy here—as soon as we have something that we like and that we think other people will too, you’ll hear about it,” says Hletko.