Catching up with the Rye

Catching Up with Rye


When you order rye whiskey these days you're likely to see a wry smile on the bartender's face. What he's thinking is, "Does this guy want real rye or does he want me to pour some generic Canadian stuff in the glass?" Ever since the 1930s, when Canadian whisky stood up to be counted, most bars have been pouring whisky (the Canadians spell their rye whisky without the "e," the way Scotch whisky is spelled) from our neighbors north of the border whenever rye was called for. Not any more, though. American straight rye whiskey is making a strong comeback, and connoisseurs are demanding it wherever they go.
Just for the record, most Canadian rye whiskies are made predominantly from corn, and many bottlings, especially some of the newer ones to hit the shelves, are very fine products. But American straight ryes, the stuff of our forefathers, are far different from the Canadians, and they're finally getting the attention they deserve.

Old Potrero, from 100 percent rye grain, is being made by Fritz Maytag and his team in San Francisco. Maytag, the man who brought us Anchor Steam beer, was a pioneer in the microbrewery business, and for the past few years he's been making and bottling whiskey that he claims is very close to the tipple that was sipped by colonists on the East Coast in the mid 1700s. It isn't aged too long—most bottlings stay in the barrel for between one and three years—but that doesn't concern Maytag. What's important to him is that, by sampling Old Potrero, we're tasting a little bit of history.

Deven Black, manager of Manhattan's North Star Pub, has spent years promoting his collection of almost 100 bottlings of single malt Scotch, but recently, even though the pub has barely any space left for more bottles, he has decided to add Old Potrero to his list of whiskeys. "Our whiskey sales have been growing in all categories—Scotch, Irish and Bourbon—even in the warmer months. So I realized that it's about time we offered a straight rye," says Black.

Rye was actually the first style of whiskey to be made in America. Many of the early immigrants who made their homes in Maryland and Pennsylvania were German and Scots-Irish farmers who used their surplus grain to make a bit of hooch, but they weren't used to dealing with corn—a grain indigenous to America. Most of those early distillers were accustomed to using barley, but barley didn't fare too well on American soil. Being the inventive souls that America spawned, they turned to rye, a grain that grew in abundance and could be malted—to release the sugars necessary for fermentation—in much the same way as barley.

Mind you, apart from Old Potrero, most of the straight ryes on the market today wouldn't be familiar at all to these farmer/distillers; they're aged far longer than our forefathers had time for. Oh, sure, the old-timers stored their whiskey in barrels, but they didn't age it purposefully—the oak kegs were merely standard containers for storing liquids. Lots of rye whiskey, therefore, was probably consumed almost as soon as it ran off the still; it would have tasted similar to a very flavorful eau de vie. Nonetheless, as Maytag presumes when he issues his young bottlings, some of it would have lingered around for a year or more, and thus Old Potrero might, indeed, be very similar to the whiskey that was sipped over 200 years ago.

The first rye that we can recall ordering was Old Overholt, a brand that originated in Pennsylvania at a distillery founded in 1812. Now Old Overholt is produced in Kentucky by the same people who bring us a host of Jim Beam Bourbons and Jim Beam Straight Rye. The Jim Beam rye is a little more delicate than the Old Overholt, which has a far bigger body and a more intricate palate. Though both these whiskeys fare well in highballs, the Old Overholt is also a straightforward honest rye that can be sipped neat. It's been a long-time favorite of rye whiskey drinkers in the know.

The Sazerac Company is just now bringing out a straight rye whiskey at 18 years old. And it came as a surprise to them: Wandering through their warehouses, the Sazerac folks stumbled across barrels of rye that they didn't even know they had. It's now known as Sazerac Rye, even though it was made at their Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky. Why? According to Mark Brown, president of the company, it's because rye whiskey was the ingredient used in the Sazerac Cocktail in the late 1800s and the company is doing its level best to make this drink popular again (see recipe page 65). At 90 proof, this is a sturdy bottling that's worthy of a snifter, but you should really try a Sazerac cocktail made with Sazerac Rye—it's a great drink.

Wild Turkey issues a green-label rye whiskey at 101 proof, which is master distiller Jimmy Russell's favorite proof at which to bottle. High proof usually makes for high flavor, and this whiskey is no exception to the rule. Wild Turkey Straight Rye is a top-quality bottling—gutsy and delicate all at once, with a spicy character that's balanced out by cherry fruitiness and hints of honey. This one holds up very well on the rocks, or try it with just a little spring water.

What's the difference between rye and Bourbon? It's quite simple really: By law, Bourbon must be made with at least 51 percent corn, and rye from at least 51 percent rye grain. While some ryes on the market actually use more than 60 percent rye, a couple of bottlings stick to the bare minimum, and these can be very interesting indeed.

The Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery in Kentucky issues two straight ryes made with exactly 51 percent rye, the remainder being made up of corn and malted barley. Issued at 12 and 13 years old, these whiskeys are similar to Bourbon in many respects, but still, there's a discernible difference. Although both bear sweet notes that we expect from Bourbon, they also display a lighter side, lavender being common to both bottlings.

The Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, also issues a couple of straight ryes: Pikesville Supreme, a delicate bottling that's perfect when served with lots of ginger ale as a long summertime drink, and Rittenhouse Rye, which is available in both 80- and 100-proof bottlings. The stronger Rittenhouse (and in our experience this is always the case) is the sturdier of the two and it stands up to ice nicely.

So next time you're in a swank whiskey lounge or cigar bar, ask about their selection of ryes, and see if the bartender does, indeed, put a wry smile on his face. Then tell him that you know what you're talking about, and try some of the real stuff.

For tasting notes on seven straight ryes, see Buying Guide page 88.

Rye Cocktails

Some classic cocktails were originally made with straight rye whiskey, but over the years people started to substitute Canadian whisky or Bourbon. Now that rye whiskey is back in vogue, it's time to go back in time a little and make these drinks the way they were created. Here are a few traditional recipes to try, plus one we've developed for the new century. We have reformulated them specifically to be used with straight rye.

The Manhattan
This cocktail was created at the Manhattan Club in the 1870s for a banquet thrown by Jenny Jerome—Winston Churchill's mother—for Samuel Tilden, a prominent politician at the time.

  • 2-1/2 ounces straight rye whiskey
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 1 maraschino cherry, for garnish

Stir all the ingredients except for the garnish together over ice, stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.

The Sazerac
This one was created in the mid 1800s with brandy as a base, but rye whiskey became the favored ingredient by the end of that century. The original methodology for making this drink is a little complicated so we experimented to come up with this formula, which is easier to make.

  • 2-1/2 ounces rye whiskey
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons pastis (Herbsaint, Pernod, Ricard, Absente, or La Muse Verte)
  • 1 teaspoon simple syrup
  • 3 or 4 dashes Peychaud bitters
  • 1 lemon twist, for garnish

Stir all ingredients except for garnish together, and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Add the garnish.

Rye Old-Fashioned
The Old-Fashioned was created at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 19th century. In all probability it was first made with Bourbon, but this rye-based recipe is a great alternative.

  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 orange slice
  • 1 lemon wedge
  • 1 maraschino cherry
  • 2-1/2 ounces rye whiskey

Using the back of a sturdy spoon, muddle the sugar, bitters, orange slice, lemon wedge, and maraschino cherry together in a double old-fashioned glass. Fill the glass with ice cubes. Add the whiskey and stir well.

The Millennium Cocktail
We created this drink in 1998 using Bourbon as a base, but it works really well with rye whiskey too. If you prefer a tall drink, make this in a large glass and top it with club soda.

  • 2-1/2 ounces straight rye whiskey
  • 1/2 ounce peach Schnapps
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 lemon twist

Stir the first three ingredients together over ice, stir well, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the lemon twist for garnish.


The Rye of Bourbon

It's almost impossible to think of rye whiskey without comparing it to Bourbon, since they are both all-American whiskeys. And, although corn must predominate in the recipe and malted barley is used in all bottlings, the majority of Bourbons use rye as a tertiary grain.

There are some Bourbons in which the rye grain is evident on their spicy, complex palates. Try these bottlings and you'll know what we mean:

Basil Hayden's Bourbon:
Heavy spices in the nose and on the palate are well balanced with a hint of fruitiness.

Buffalo Trace Bourbon: A very masculine whiskey with a complex spicy mustiness combined with leather and tobacco notes that are well integrated with an orange fruitiness.

Old Grand-Dad Bourbon:
This one shows some sweet vanilla, but more evident is the peppery spiciness displayed by notes of cloves and cinnamon.

Wild Turkey 101 Proof Bourbon :
Another complex Bourbon with a bold palate showing honey, fruits, and vanilla mingling alongside the spicier rye notes of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and tobacco.

Maker's Mark, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and the Van Winkle Bourbons are all exceptions to the rule; they are made with wheat as the tertiary grain, and these whiskeys seem to show a somewhat softer character. "Think of wheat bread versus rye bread," says Bill Samuels, Jr., president of the Maker's Mark Distillery.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to generalize about the character of wheated Bourbons versus those based on rye. Very Special Old Fitzgerald Bourbon, for instance, a whiskey that utilizes wheat instead of rye, shows honey, sweet butter, and dark berries, but notes normally associated with rye come through in the form of leather and a hint of tobacco. On the other hand, Blanton's, a single-barrel Bourbon made with rye, shows the softer side of this style: Although there's a touch of tongue-tingling spice present on the palate, there's far more honey and vanilla there, and it could easily be mistaken for a wheated Bourbon.

So we're left with a conundrum here: It's not really possible to define either category. And that's what makes Bourbons, whether they're made with wheat or rye, so darned interesting. —G.R.

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