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.
For many years, though, rye rarely came to mind. 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.
But that hasn’t deterred all rye distillers. After all, vodka wasn't always wildly popular. Bourbon had its down periods. The current success and attention of the forgotten whiskey may indeed be signalling a rye rebound.
Such star bourbon makers as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Old Overholt and Van Winkle are pushing their ryes. Old Potrero, lesser known but a must-have with rye aficionadoes, has several styles on the shelf, and Michter’s, which has a whole range of ryes, is making a huge comeback.
And, in a victory of huge proportions for the legitimacy of rye, Heaven Hill Distilleries' Rittenhouse Bottled-In-Bond Rye Whisky took the title of "North American Whiskey of the Year" at the recently-completed 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
In the whiskey world, that’s akin to Rudy making the varsity football team at Notre Dame.
The annual competition is perhaps the most prestigious spirits competition in the industry. Rittenhouse’s victory meant it had to clear two huge hurdles.
First, it had to be judged a double gold –- a unanimous pick -- medal winner in a blind tasting in its rye whiskey class. Then it had to top all other double gold winners in the North American Whiskey category, which included bourbons, Canadian whiskies and artisinal spirits made by micro-distilleries.
Kirstin Jackson, brand manager for Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, didn’t mind crowing a bit after the triumph.
"Historically, rye whiskey has been the ultimate expression of classic American whiskey style, and we at Heaven Hill Distilleries were one of only three remaining producers to keep the style alive during the lean years when rye was overshadowed by bourbon and Scotch and Irish whiskies," she said.
Rittenhouse Rye was launched by the Continental Distilling Co. of Philadelphia after the repeal of Prohibition. Later, it was bought by Heaven Hill Distilleries, the nation's largest independent family-owned spirits producer and the second largest holder of aging American whiskey in the world.
While the victory as best North American whiskey overall might have been a surprise, winning in the rye category was not. Rittenhouse was named "Whiskey of the Year" for 2005 by Wine & Spirits Magazine, and last summer Esquire called it "one of the best American Whiskeys at any price."
In recent years I’ve been trying high-end ryes. While a high price doesn’t always guarantee quality and enjoyability, it seems to help. For example, I was very pleased with Michter's Single Barrel Straight Rye (92.8 proof), aged 10 years in charred white oak. It carries a suggested retail price of $57.99. Now, however, Rittenhouse chimes in at the opposite end of the pricing scale with a suggested price for its 100-proof version at about $19 and its 80-proof at about $15.
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