'Washington's whiskey' on the comeback trail

Back in the dark ages of my occasionally misspent youth, when the legal drinking age in New York was 18 and minimum wage was less than a buck an hour, 30 cents would buy you a nice highball. Really.

Highball. Then a common term for a simple mixed cocktail, now a quaint, anachronistic word. The highball of choice for my untrained young palate was rye and ginger. Four ounces of ginger ale and a shot of whatever rye the bartender poured into it. I wasn't into labels in those days. Even for the ginger ale.

Nowadays, worldly sophisticate that I am, rye rarely comes to mind. Which seems to be a rather common thing in the whiskey world. Rye -- a whiskey distilled from rye or rye and malt -- is far down the list of brown beverages, peering up longingly at the lofty perches occupied by a sea of bourbons, an ocean of scotches. That isn't stopping every rye distiller, however. After all, vodka wasn't always wildly popular. Bourbon had its down periods. So, there's hope for a rye rebound.

Such star bourbon makers as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Old Overholt and Van Winkle have their ryes. Old Potrero, lesser known but a must-have with rye aficionadoes, has several styles. What all these brands have in common is a strong alcohol nose at first, followed by a spicy richness, then varying degrees of lingering warmth.

Another distiller putting a lot of its marbles on a rye comeback is Michter's American Whiskey Co., and mention of it becomes very topical in this month of presidential holidays.

Michter's is arguably the nation's oldest existing rye name despite a gap in its lineage. Most historians think it supplied George Washington's Continental Army during its bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge, PA. Although Michter's distillery today is located in Bardstown, KY, then it was in Schaefferstown, PA.

(Washington's own fondness for whiskey made on his Mt. Vernon, VA, farm has been the creative spark behind resurrecting the process on those very premises, as shown in the photo above with period-costumed distillers using Washington's original recipe. Visitors can see it all happen as part of the American Whiskey Trail tour.)

Michter's history can be traced to 1753, when a Swiss Mennonite immigrant named John Shenk began making whiskey in Schaefferstown, located in a triangle of Pennsylvania Dutch country defined by Harrisburg, Lancaster and Reading.

Christopher Carlson of Spirits Review notes that even though the Michter's name now is owned by the Kentucky distiller which is producing the rye there, the original distillery was designated a historic landmark but was partially scrapped. It is ... being restored by the present owner."

Despite Bardstown being in the heart of an area that produces 90% of the world's bourbon, Michter's now has a line of very nice ryes to complement its bourbon: Michter's Small Batch US 1 Unblended American Whiskey (83.4 proof), a grain alcohol that can be lumped into the rye category, aged in bourbon- soaked white oak barrels (suggested retail price $34.99); Michter's Single Barrel US 1 Straight Rye (84.8 proof), aged at least 36 months in charred white oak barrels (SRP $42.99), and Michter's Single Barrel Straight Rye (92.8 proof), aged 10 years in charred white oak (SRP $57.99).

I don't find, as a matter of course, that a higher alcohol content automatically means a better liquor. Usually quite the opposite, since many distllers tend to let alcohol's kick substitute for distillation subtlety. However, in the case of Michter's ryes, the higher the proof, the smoother and more complex the taste.

I particularly recommend the 10-year-old single barrel. It's excellent when smoothed out with an ice cube or two, or a few drops of cool water that help open its nose and afternotes.

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