Prior to the modern bourbon boom, rye whiskey was regarded as the original American spirit and before Prohibition, was even the most popular style of whiskey in the country.
This may be surprising for some, as Rye whiskey - in all its wondrous shapes and sizes - isn’t for everyone. It’s naturally earthy and spicier kick than other grains, means that high-rye whiskeys can be a more acquired taste - but it’s one that many have come to find their palate really adores. From historic Pennsylvanian brands such as Rittenhouse Rye (today produced at Heaven Hill) to dependable names such as Wild Turkey, the big and bold flavours of rye are once again back in style and experiencing a bit of a renaissance among whiskey enthusiasts and bartenders.
And despite its somewhat divisive nature, it is a rye whiskey that has become one of the most legendary, and sought-after, in all of American whiskey – Red Hook Rye. A fitting nod to the domination that Rye once held across America.
LeNell's - A Mecca for New York City's Spirits Obsessed
LeNell Camacho Santa Ana is a household name and popular figure at the heart of America’s spirit and liquor scene. Characterised online as “The First Lady of Liquor” or “Lady Bourbon”, if you were to ask LeNell, she’d define herself as a whiskey lover, period. And she probably wouldn’t thank you for anything more. Incredibly humble, Fred Minnick has described her as “genuinely one of the most under-rated heroes of bourbon and American whiskey”.
LeNell grew up in northern Alabama and like many Southerners recalls her first memory of whiskey probably being a bottle of Jack Daniel’s passed around the campfire. After gaining a master’s degree in administration at University, she fell into bartending and cocktail waitressing to support her 14 year old sister that she had recently been given custody of at 21 years of age. It was from her time in the hospitality industry that she fell in love with spirits.
Red Hook, Brooklyn New York
After moving to New York in 2000, LeNell set up her first liquor store – eponymously named LeNell’s - in Red Hook, Brooklyn three years later (a neighborhood with so much grit that a popular local myth suggests it's the place where Al Capone got his scar). Like many new businesses, those first months were incredibly slow with LeNell’s early patrons predominantly made up of local neighbours in Red Hook. She would spend the quiet late night evenings opening bottles of bourbon, tasting them and visiting straightbourbon.com to devour as much information about her passion as she could.
Over time, LeNell began to stock more and more American whiskeys and keepsake bourbons. Soon enough, she gained a reputation as a treasure house for interesting and hard-to-find whiskeys, wines and more obscure spirits that bartenders struggled to find anywhere else. She was always ahead of the curve - for example, she was one of the first to stock Pappy Van Winkle and became a close acquaintance of Julian Van Winkle III.
She had a staunch following of enthusiasts from New York – and even further afield – which was impressive given that it was around 45 minutes from the nearest subway stop.
In 2009, she sadly closed the doors of her New York store for a new life in Mexico where she ran a bar called Casa Cóctel. In 2011, she returned to Birmingham, Alabama and started a new chapter for LeNell's which is still alive and kicking today.
Selecting Red Hook Rye
The first seed of inspiration for selecting a private barrel for LeNell’s came from her good friend, Drew Kulsveen of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD).
Operating out of the silent Willett distillery, the Kuslveen family became renowned for skillfully selecting old stocks of American whiskey from distilleries such as Stitzel-Weller and the original Heaven Hill Bardstown distillery, to be bottled under the Willett Family Estate brand. They were also responsible for bottling other brands such as Very Olde St. Nick and the enigmatic Black Maple Hill label.
In 2007 and 2008, LeNell made multiple visits to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, inviting trusted groups to assist in selecting her very own private barrel picks - this included bourbon historian Michael Veach and Don Lee, a now world-famous New York bartender.
On the incredibly seldom occasions when one is spotted, Red Hook Rye provides a unique snapshot into a bygone era of private barrel selections from the warehouses of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD). A very different time, the casks were selected when third parties were afforded privileged access to some of the company’s finest barrels of bourbon and rye, today reserved for its prized Willett Family Estate brand.
Access to these was only the first step however, and it required some of the finest noses and palates in America to find and select them. Thankfully LeNell was equipped with both.
Joe Wilson, Head Curator & Spirits Specialist at Whisky Auctioneer
Red Hook 23 Year Old Rye from Barrel #2 available in Whisky Auctioneer's March Auction
Together they selected just four barrels of 23- and 24-year-old rye from the depths of Warehouse G. These casks were individually bottled between 112.8 to 117.6 proof.
There were four barrels, and that first barrel is still my favourite of all four barrels. Just being able to pick the cream from the crop, meant the barrel was phenomenal.
What made the whisky so special at that age, is that they had dumped the barrels they had initially bought and refilled bourbon barrels with the rye, so that whisky could sit there for a little longer at that age and not become so over the top with wood.
LeNell Camacho Santa Ana
Taken from a recorded 2020 interview with Bourbon Pursuit
It is believed that the barrels used for Red Hook Rye were the legendary Cream of Kentucky barrels from Schenley’s Bernheim distillery in Louisville, the same that were used to bottle the first Michter's releases and early Sazerac 18 year olds.
Alongside the declared quality of the liquid among whiskey connoisseurs and critics, the label itself has contributed to this bottle's standing in the hall of fame. LeNell devised the name “Red Hook Rye” in homage to her local neighbourhood and the iconic artwork was designed by Brooklyn artist Powell who also designed her in-store event postcards. The muscle-adorned label was inspired by the Brooklyn dockworkers that populated the Red Hook pier.
Her selection of four casks of Bernheim-distilled rye may have been very personal moments shared between her and KBD’s Even Kulsveen, however they have proven to have been seismic events that have left an indelible mark on the world of collectable American whiskey as we know it.
Joe Wilson, Head Curator & Spirits Specialist at Whisky Auctioneer
Only 852 bottles existed across all four of LeNell’s single barrel picks, making it particularly rare. This rarity, coupled with its legendary status among whiskey hunters, has led to significant values on the secondary market.
When LeNell closed her New York store in 2009, she still had Pappy Van Winkle and Red Hook Rye on the shelves - a ludicrous notion to consider amid the modern single barrel bourbon craze. During the set up of her current store in Birmingham, Alabama, LeNell sold all of the remaining Red Hook Rye she had in order to complete construction. Considering that all the bottles have now been sold, and largely to early patrons of LeNell's store and neighbourhood bars, it's likely that there are not many of these still around that haven't been consumed.
Today, LeNell continues to hold an indelible influence on Brooklyn's drinking culture. In her home state of Alabama, the reincarnation of LeNell's Beverage Boutique continues to celebrate everything from common favourites to rare bourbons, quirky liqueurs and delicious agave. Following on from the success of Red Hook Rye in New York, her shelves also include an enviable array of private barrel selections, exclusively available for local customers. Her store in Norwood attracts drinkers across state lines with a curiosity to learn, and understand more, about the spirits they're drinking.
Whisky Auctioneer regularly welcomes rare and collectible American bourbons and rye in our monthly auctions. Browse all past and present lots or contact us if you are interested in selling a bottle of rare American whiskey.