December 5, 2013 will mark the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition—certainly an occasion worth celebrating. Bringing the so-called “Noble Experiment” to an end after 13 long, dry years, the passage of the 21st Amendment (which repealed the 18th Amendment) made beverage alcohol legal again in America.
A popular repeal-era spirit, rye whiskey is experiencing a revival. It’s an up-and-coming category, with notable new bottlings from producers like George Dickel, Bulleit and Wild Turkey, and smaller upstarts like Angel’s Envy and High West.
Rye was no new tipple even back in the early part of last century. It first gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1700s, when Scottish and Irish settlers—with cultural ties to distilling whiskey in their homelands—began making whiskey from the abundant rye grain that grew in the Northeast.
That style of early American whiskey is available today: Try Pennsylvania-style rye made from sweeter, more robust Monongahela rye like Dad’s Hat, or Maryland-style rye, made from grain with a brighter, grassier flavor, like Pikeville.
When Prohibition shuttered the nation’s distilleries in 1920, drinkers turned to whatever alcohol was available—particularly the lighter-flavored Canadian whiskies supplied by bootleggers.
Although Canadian whiskey is not the same as rye whiskey, a number of excellent ryes are produced in Canada, like WhistlePig and Masterson’s.
Today, mixologists are rekindling their love affair with rye. Not only was it the spirit used in pre-Prohibition cocktails like proper Sazeracs and Manhattans, its spicy-sweet bite is inspiring creative new libations as well.
“I enjoy making cocktails with rye because its bold, spicy character stands up well to mixing,” says Brooks Reitz, bartender at The Ordinary in Charleston, South Carolina.
“It’s not as soft and round as Bourbon,” he says. “Think of it like the difference between the sweet flavor of wheat bread, compared to the bold flavor of rye bread.”
Try these favorites—on Repeal Day, or any day when a good cocktails is in order.
Recipe courtesy Brian Van Flandern, author of Craft Cocktails (Assouline, 2013)
This cocktail is made with equal parts of three ingredients, plus bitters—a simple formula that yields speakeasy-style sophistication.
1 ounce Russell’s Reserve Rye Whiskey
1 ounce Amaro Nonino
1 ounce Lustau East India Solera Sherry
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Orange peel, for garnish
Place all ingredients in a mixing glass. Add large ice cubes and stir thoroughly. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.
Recipe courtesy Kevin Diedrich, bar manager at Jasper’s Corner Tap, San Francisco
This single-serve punch was created for an event celebrating the rollout of George Dickel Rye.
3 raspberries, plus additional berries for garnish
2 mint sprigs, plus additional sprig for garnish
1⅓ ounces George Dickel Rye
½ ounce lemon juice
¼ ounce ginger syrup
1 teaspoon simple syrup
¾ ounce sparkling water
In a cocktail shaker, muddle 3 raspberries and 2 mint sprigs. Add the remaining ingredients (except sparkling water) and ice. Shake well, and strain into an old fashioned glass, over fresh ice. Top with sparkling water and garnish.
Recipe courtesy Brooks Reitz, bartender at The Ordinary, Charleston, South Carolina
This classic cocktail was named for the American battleship sunk in Havana Harbor prior to the Spanish-American War.
½ ounce absinthe
1½ ounces Bulleit rye whiskey
¾ ounce Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
¼ ounce Cherry Heering
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Pour the absinthe into a chilled cocktail glass. Swirl it to coat the inside of the glass, pouring out any extra. In a mixing glass, combine the remaining ingredients with ice and stir well. Strain into the prepared glass.
Recipe courtesy of Scofflaw, Chicago
Scofflaw uses housemade grenadine for this classic cocktail—try your hand making your own, or buy a good pomegranate-based grenadine like Employees Only.
2 ounces Jim Beam Rye whiskey
1 ounce Dolin Blanc dry vermouth
¾ ounce grenadine
¾ ounce lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, and strain into a chilled coupe glass.
The Plus Side of Prohibition
According to Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner, 2010), we can thank Prohibition for the following innovations:
Tonic water became a masking agent for dubious “bathtub gin,” while ginger ale replaced soda water as the standard mixer for whiskey because its flavor could smother the laboratory odors of fake rye.The triumph of ginger ale was complete when film siren Greta Garbo uttered her first on-screen lines, in Anna Christie: “Gimme a viskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.”
Wealthy would-be tipplers fanned the flames of liquor tourism. Cruise ships (with fully stocked bars, of course) and international aircraft ferried well-heeled passengers to the brighter spots in the Caribbean.
An advertising campaign offered jointly by the Bacardi rum-making family and the fledgling Pan American Airways featured the slogan, “Fly with us to Havana and you can bathe in Bacardi rum two hours from now.” Similarly, the governor general of the rum-rich Bahamas issued a new challenge to his executive council: “Well, gentlemen, it amounts to this—if we can’t take the liquor to the Americans, we must bring the Americans to the liquor.”
After repeal, country boys who had made their living racing souped-up cars ahead of revenue agents on the back roads of the South found people were willing to pay to watch them race—and so came the birth of the National Association for Stock Car Racing.
The term was coined to denote the minimal bathroom facilities for women that were hastily installed in formerly all-male saloons once they had become speakeasies open to both genders.