The Rise of Ryes

“Beer is for women, wine for men and rye is for heroes” – Bismarck

Even the utterance of the word “prohibition” is enough to curl me up like a dead spider, dried and contorted with a blank stare and grimace on my face. This chapter in the history of our great country had to be as painful and drawn out as disemboweling oneself with a wooden spoon. Okay, maybe not THAT bad. However, if Vietnam was our ten thousand day war then prohibition had to be our five thousand day bore.

Depending on what book you read or whose version of the current cocktail history revisionism you ascribe to, prohibition either helped or hurt cocktail culture in the US. I’m thinking it was quite a bit of both. There were some winners in the equation though. Like the Mafia! Nice work Congress. The Mob as we know it was built on the rum and booze runners of the roaring 20’s and without the Volstead act none of this would have happened.

There were some sad casualties though, not the least of which was the original American spirit, rye whiskey. In the 1700’s, from the frontier valleys of Pennsylvania to the Maryland fields, rye grain grown was used to distill a distinctly American whiskey, drier on the finish, less sour, more earth and spice. Hell, we almost even started a civil war over it! What’s more American than that? HA! Nothing! Just ask Glenn Beck.

For those of you that have never heard of the Whiskey Rebellion, it’s a fascinating study in agro-economics, tax law and the dynamics of drunken mobs. The Reader’s Digest version is as follows: Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, revenue was needed to pay down the national debt. Then Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton decided to raise the tax on whiskey in order to increase both government revenue and promote the awareness of the dangers that would later be described as causing “blear-eyed men and faded women to drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation.” (Sign me up!)

It seems taxation was a touchy subject even after we kicked out the Brits. Local farmers didn’t take well to taxing their crops differently than if they had used the rye to bake or feed cattle. On top of that, taxation hit local distillers more heavily than larger ones in the east who could afford a “flat fee tax” that was cheaper per bottle but too expensive for smaller operations to pay. So in 1794 three thousand western Pennsylvania locals revolted over the issue, prompting George Washington (himself a distiller of rye at Mt Vernon) to lead almost 13,000 federal troops to march on Pittsburgh and “use a meat axe to kill a spider” as Thomas Jefferson described it.

But with the start of prohibition, and most importantly after it, rye whiskey withered on the vine. The former is easy to explain, the latter not so much. Making rye whiskey is a more involved process, so upon the resumption of commercial distilling most enterprises went straight to making American whiskey or bourbon since it was quicker to produce. On top of that Canadian whiskies, which have historically had more rye content, were already available. Aside from a few exceptions, like Old Overholt (which Johnny Sampson once wisely described as the Jameson of rye whiskies), few survived.

Old-timey ryes have (to me) always been a bit “thin,” “tinny,” and have sometimes had a taste that reminds me of what Hussong’s Cantina smells like. Smoke, leather and turpentine. Not much to coat the palette, the flavor slides off the tongue like SoCal into the Pacific after an earthquake. Also, oak barrel aging for rye was possibly a lucky accident; in the days before railroad travel the elixir was likely to sit in a barrel for a year or two before it made it from western PA to Philly or Boston. Early rural ryes were likely more akin to moonshine than the product we see today.

But in recent years, thanks to the foresight of a few distillers and the revival of cocktail culture, this great American whiskey is back. The current version is probably considerably different than the concoction of the 1700s but it is notable for its complexity and uniqueness. Combine that with the fact that most true, early cocktails were meant to be made with rye and you have a recipe for some serious beverage making. Here are the standouts:

Michter’s Rye, produced on and off since 1753 in Amish country, is a good one. At 84 proof and complex, it grabs you by the nuts like Jack Daniels but feels bad about it and leans in close for a whispered apology like Basil Hayden.

Templeton Rye shamelessly markets itself as the choice of Al Capone but despite that its actually good hooch, a little pine and maybe mint.

Masterson’s Rye is a great one too, although also marketed using the legacy of a dead person. It’s grainier, a bit more floral and distilled by a company owned by the Sebastiani family – and they know alcohol.

Van Winkle is worth a taste, just complex enough and a well-balanced rye flavor, a bit of dried cherry in there too.

High West! Double Barrel Redemption Rye is actually a bit much for me straight but makes one hell of a Manhattan, too much rye even by my standards.

And Rittenhouse? At 100 proof a perfect rye much like Wild Turkey is a perfect whiskey. Hot but hides it well enough, a little rough for me though. It’s won some medals so who cares what I think.

Anchor Distilling’s Old Portrero is masterful, beyond reproach actually. I’m biased for sure to the brand but, in all honesty, it’s the finest booze I’ve ever tasted – a bit of smoke, spice and an almost cognac-like quality that is hard to describe. I’d talk about it more but I’m saving it for another time!

And what to make with rye? My favorite is from a 1949 Esquire magazine cocktail book, the Floridita Special. Situated somewhere in between a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and a Sidcar it’s a nice blend of rye, Amer Picon, vermouth and dry curacao. I perhaps sing the praises of the Crosby too much, but generally it’s for the food. In this case it’s for their concoction, the Fancy Free. A simple mix of rye and two kinds of bitters it’s a straightforward drink with just enough citrus to take the edge off.

Welcome back rye! And most of all welcome to the OC, it seems that more and more places have a few bottles on their back bar and some have quite a selection. Next time you jump right into ordering your usual whiskey drink take a little side trip to rye-ville, you won’t be sorry.

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