Catching up with the Rye
Catching Up with Rye
GUTSY BUT DELICATE, ALL-AMERICAN RYE IS MAKING A COMEBACK, NOT JUST IN COCKTAILS BUT AS A SIPPING WHISKEY.
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.