The Roaring Kentucky Rye: Breaking the Rules with Coalition Whiskey

The Roaring Kentucky Rye: Breaking the Rules with Coalition Whiskey

Coalition Whiskey founder Leonid Yangarber first made his name as the CEO of a major Vodka brand. But, as any great visionary, he had an itch to create something truly different. His out-of-the-box dreams led him out of the corporate world and into the craft world, following his love of American Whiskey.

There, he envisioned a 100% Rye Whiskey made in Kentucky, but he wanted to give it a special twist. So he assembled a coalition of industry experts to help him create a luxurious, 1920s-inspired Bourdeaux Wine barrel-aged Rye the market hasn’t seen before.

After all, there’s no riskier business like the Whiskey business, right? Flaviar sat down with The Architect (as he is called) to talk dreams, drams, and dare over a glass of Coalition 100% Rye Whiskey Margaux Barriques.


When did you know you wanted to become a founder of a Whiskey brand, and what was the main motivation?

Leonid: It was like two and a half years ago when I decided to leave the corporate world and start doing things on my own, for myself.

I was looking at Whiskey and Tequila, which sounded the most interesting to me. But I decided to make Whiskey because it’s just such a beautiful American thing.

How would you explain your job in one sentence?

Leonid: I'm kind of thinking between “a leader” and “a visionary”, but let's keep “a leader” for now.

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned doing your job?

Leonid: Be real about what you're doing. Be in very close, constant contact with the market, with various types of players. Check back, talk to people all the time. Show what you do. Basically, talk to people. Don't do things in isolation, on your own, or you'll make mistakes.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Ability to see the future.

How would you describe Coalition Whiskey in three words?
Delicious, beautiful, rare.

What are the five expressions you’d put in a brand new infinity bottle first?
I haven't made one yet, but it sounds like a great idea.

What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
A nice steak and red Wine. And Coalition on the rocks, obviously.

A Genie tells you to pick someone to share a drink with; dead or alive, real or fictional. Who would it be? Why?
My wife. Because of her support and my love for her, she helped me go through many things, making all those choices and decisions, sticking with me through easy times, hard times… We’ve only been together for five years, but we're very close. And of course my beautiful kids.

Who’s your inspiration, and why?

Leonid: You know, I used to play a lot of tennis in my early years, and I remember being very impressed with top tennis players, the biggest champions, people like Federer, for instance.

I just wanted to break the rules.

They were just so far beyond sports, far beyond physical abilities, you know, it takes so much brainpower, personality, patience, dealing with failures, dealing with people, and still getting out here and winning.

So, I would say Roger Federer, probably.

What do you do when you’re not around fine Spirits?

Leonid: I spend time with my kids. I'm blessed, I have three beautiful daughters. I just really enjoy spending time and playing with them and talking to them, teaching them something, and getting back so much of this energy, which you cannot get from the adults.

Please tell us more about Coalition Whiskey as a brand and a product.

Leonid: It's quite an unusual product, actually. My idea was to do something that doesn’t really exist on the market. I was pretty clear in my initial intention to go the Bourbon route or the Rye Whiskey route, I just wanted to do it differently.

I was looking at ways to really give Rye a twist.

Most of today’s startups are very similar—similar concepts, a similar approach to packaging, similar brand stories... I just wanted to break the rules. And it's risky, obviously. But, if you do it well, if you get lucky, then you're more likely to succeed.

Firstly, I wanted to find a liquid that is top-notch, that Kentucky is very well known for. I got lucky to have met Steve Thompson, the owner of Kentucky Artisan Distillery (Editor’s note: Steve has just recently passed away in 2021), and they had this tremendous and very unusual Rye Whiskey, made with a 100 percent rye mash bill.

And secondly, it is Kentucky rye, which is triple unusual because farmers don't really grow much rye in Kentucky, due to the climate. You see, rye likes cold and dry places. We use local rye from Kentucky, from a farm a mile away from the distillery.

Smartass Corner note: For a Whiskey to be called a Rye, it must be made with at least 51% rye, which imparts a lighter, spicier, and grainier profile, with more floral notes, as compared to Bourbon. Rye’s finish is also drier and is because of this and the uppity character why Rye is so popular in cocktails. If you’re thirsty for more info on the style, check this article.

I was looking at ways to really give Rye a twist and do it slightly differently. I recruited a friend, a French gentleman, Ludwig Vanneron, a very well-known Winemaker from Bordeaux.

Coalition Whiskey is a classy brand, so we would like to see it shared in good company on a special occasion.

The three of us decided we would take Steve’s Rye and finish it in different types of top-quality barrels from Bordeaux and see what happens. It was a gamble, really.

It obviously wasn’t the first Whiskey to be finished in Wine barrels, people normally do it a little, but what we did, is to go after high-quality barrels from top Wine places and houses. So, top-quality Kentucky Rye finished in Bordeaux barrels from three different appellations: Margaux, Pauillac, and Sauternes.

Smartass Corner note: Dive deeper into the world of Wine barrel-finishing in our dedicated article.

Brand-wise, I think I broke the rule because it looks very different. I wanted to take a more luxurious route.

I wanted to make it look special and more valuable, very giftable. And also kind of traditional in the way. So on one hand, luxurious and beautiful, on the other, rooted in the past. We decided on an Art Deco theme—the Roaring 20s were a very interesting and happy time in the US.

Are there any differences palate-wise between a Rye Whiskey that comes from Kentucky versus one that comes from somewhere else, for example, the Midwest?

Leonid: It's not just rye, the location of the crops, but also where the Whiskey’s being aged. That's what makes a big difference because aging is good when temperature shifts are extreme. And that's what Kentucky is all about.

Smartass Corner note: Drastic daily temperature swings cause the barrels to dramatically breathe in and out, taking the best of what the oak has to offer. At low temperatures, the wood constricts and squeezes the juice out, infusing it with rich amber color. At high temperatures, the barrels expand and the juice gets pushed through the charred oak producing those signature oak flavors.

What’s the craziest anecdote behind the making of Coalition 100% Rye Whiskey Margaux Barriques you’re willing to share?

Leonid: Well… not many people know Bordeaux wines very well. They will say “listen, if this is Chateau Margaux, then why doesn't it cost a thousand dollars”?

Obviously, Margaux and Chateau Margaux are two different things. Margaux is an appellation that covers multiple Wine houses. So, from time to time, we have to tell people that Margaux is a little bigger than Chateau Margaux.

Do you select the barrels themselves based on the Wine that was in them?

Leonid: Yeah, Ludwig does that. His inspection has to be extremely thorough.

Firstly, you want high-quality barrels in the first place. Secondly, you don't want barrels that carried simple, cheap Wine. Thirdly, the Wine shouldn’t have sat in those for a long time, no more than a year. Ludwig knows what to look for.

We want to become a serious player in the luxury market.

The Wines from the Chateaus we’re buying from retail for $200 in the US. And they’re not easy to get, especially certain barrels.

When it comes to choosing the Wine regions, do you have specific flavor notes or profiles from the wine that you're looking to utilize? How did you choose the appellations that you are working with within Bordeaux?

Leonid: We decided on three different finishes and we wanted them to be distinctively different.

Margaux carries red Wine barrels. These are known for being pretty powerful, yet elegant. They infuse the Whiskey with aromas of light floral notes at the beginning, not overly spicy as some could have expected, and well-balanced oak notes.

For flavor, they create complexity and structure, with red fruit nuances, hints of mint, grapefruit, and a touch of roasted coffee beans. Great deep garnet amber color, too.

With Pauillac, we were looking for a very distinctive difference, more peppery, more dark fruit flavors and characters.

Sauternes is a dessert Wine, a sweet white Wine, with another completely different character altogether. We experimented a lot.

Imagine the perfect evening with Coalition Margaux. Who are you sharing it with? What are you eating? What’s the soundtrack to it?

Leonid: Well, Coalition Whiskey is a classy brand, so we would like to see it shared in good company on a special occasion. The 100% Rye would make a fantastic Manhattan—served at a high-level restaurant or bar, of course.

I would say it's a bit beyond the everyday Whiskey. And obviously, it's fantastic with steaks.

For the soundtrack, I’d go with Glenn Miller. Classy and smart. He is a pioneer of swing which I think is very much an Art Deco era music. We have actually used several of his tracks for our IG stories before!

What would you say to someone not familiar with Rye Whiskey in general and Coalition Whiskey to get them excited/passionate about exploring/trying it?

Leonid: Rye Whiskey is doing very well now. It's a much smaller business than Bourbon though, but its growth rates are much higher.

People are increasingly starting to drink Rye more, but there’s still a misconception among Whiskey fans that Rye might be a little bit too harsh, overly spicy, and not sweet enough.

I believe people are afraid of Rye for all the wrong reasons. Our Rye is all rye, no corn. But it's still very enjoyable, not over the top. And you can pick up a lot of sweetness and spice there.

Another thing is that Rye ages faster than Bourbon, it becomes better sooner than Bourbon. So, for instance, a 6-year Rye and 6-year Bourbon are not the same thing, quality-, flavor- and profile-wise. A 6-year Rye will be more complex—like a 10-year Bourbon.

What are the must-have bottles of Rye Whiskey in any proud connoisseur's home bar?

Leonid: WhistlePig is a very good and popular, very successful brand. I think it is exclusively Canadian Rye if I'm not mistaken. And I think they're making good Whiskey.

Sagamore Rye from Maryland is pretty good as well.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel-Proof, Michters Single Barrel, and Lock Stock & Barrel 16 Year Rye. Yes, these are very established brands, but they are making great Ryes, I must admit!

What’s the most exciting upcoming project?

Leonid: I want to keep that secret for now, but let’s just say that it includes venturing out into the Whiskey category further.

Where do you see Coalition Whiskey in 5-10 years?

Leonid: We want it to be very successful, for people to learn about it, try it, adopt it, and appreciate the beauty of it.

We want to become a serious player in the luxury market. We would like to be a must-have in the best stores, restaurants, and bars.

I would love to see—completely selfishly, because it's my idea—for my rule-breaking to pay off, right, so that the concept of “just doing things differently” would be proven to work.

Coalition will always be a reasonably small brand just because we are creating a very rare and limited liquid. I really appreciate and enjoy reading comments about our product and seeing people sharing photos on their own without being paid to do so.

And obviously, we want to take it outside of the US. We already have plenty of inquiries from different parts of the world. Someday.

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