“I'd just helped Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his whiskey with his rye, and I felt he needed conveying. I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: 'Good evening, Mr. Dowd.'
“I turned, and there was this big white rabbit leaning against a lamp post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you've lived in a town as long as I've lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name.”
Therein began my curiosity about rye, which in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1944 stage play “Harvey” seemed to be differentiated from all other whiskies – at least in the mind of main character Elwood P. Dowd, with whom I share both a surname and a fascination with the offbeat.
Back in the dark ages of my occasionally misspent youth, when the legal drinking age in my home state of New York was 18 and minimum wage was less than a dollar 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.
Rye went the way of my youth, for the most part, until the past few years when it has become increasingly bandied about and new versions of it have been released by adventurous distillers.
Rye still is well down the list of brown whiskies, peering up longingly at the lofty perches occupied by a sea of bourbons, an ocean of scotches.
However, that isn't stopping every rye distiller. After all, vodka wasn't always wildly popular. Bourbon had its down periods. Thus, an emerging rye rebound.
Sazerac Straight Rye, a Kentucky distillation, won a double gold medal and the title of top North American whiskey in this year‘s prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Double golds also went to the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, the Rittenhouse 21 Year Old Single Barrel Rye, and the Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled-in-Bond Rye (which won best North American whiskey in ’06), all in competition with the best of America’s bourbons and Tennessee whiskies (essentially, bourbons that have been run through charcoal filtration systems) and Canada’s blends.
Kirstin Jackson, brand manager for Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, notes:
"Historically, rye whiskey has been the ultimate expression of classic American whiskey style. We at Heaven Hill Distilleries were one of (the) only … producers to keep the style alive during the lean years when rye was overshadowed by bourbon and Scotch and Irish whiskies."
By statute, rye whiskey is made from a mash of at least 51% rye, a grass that is part of the wheat family. The remainder usually is malted barley and corn.
That makes it unique among North American whiskies. Although much Canadian whiskey is labeled “rye,” modern products use very little of the grain. Bourbon must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn, but most distillers use 70% or more. Tennessee whiskey begins as bourbon, but then is filtered through charcoal devices.
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 aficionados, 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 money on a rye comeback is Michter's American Whiskey Co., arguably the United States’ 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, in the midst of the breakaway from England. Although Michter's distillery today is located in Bardstown, KY, then it was in Schaefferstown, PA.
And, speaking of Washington, his own fondness for rye whiskey made on his Mount Vernon, VA, farms was reborn on a sunny April afternoon this year when his distillery, destroyed by a devastating fire nearly two centuries ago and just rebuilt from descriptions in his diaries, was unveiled. It’s a working distillery, using 18th century techniques to produce rye whiskey of the sort Washington and his Scottish-born distiller, James Anderson, did when they were turning out nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year compared to the average output of 650 gallons from other Virginia distilleries.
Some of America’s most prominent master distillers, usually rivals in business, have been working together for the past year and a half to help re-create Washington’s rye. Among them: Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey, Jerry Dalton of Jim Beam, Joseph Dengler of Virginia Gentleman, Ken Pierce of Barton Brands, David Pickerell of Maker’s Mark, Chris Morris of Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve, Gerald Webb of I.W. Harper and John Lunn of George Dickel.
I sampled their handiwork during the distillery unveiling and was pleasantly surprised. The whiskey has a remarkable amber color for something only a year in the wood. Obviously, the maturation process had been sped up by using small, 10-gallon casks which surround the raw whiskey with very accessible oak. It has a fine nose, pleasing spiciness and herbal nuances. All in all, a definitely promising young whiskey I'd love to re-taste a year or two from now.
Despite Bardstown, KY, being in the heart of an area that produces 90% of the world's bourbon, Michter's 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 some distillers 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.
In the midst of researching this story I had a birthday. My wife surprised me with a bottle of an elusive distillation, Black Maple Hill 23 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey.
It is, without doubt, the finest rye I’ve ever experienced. It is stunning at first, then surprising in depth and allure.
While most rye prices are in the same price range -- above $30 are considered premium, above $49 super premium -- heaven, or Heaven Hill, only knows what to call a $150 category.
The Bardstown distiller last fall launched a S150-a-bottle rye. It produced only 32 barrels, or about 3,000 of the 750ml bottles, of Rittenhouse Very Rare 21-Year-Old Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey, a 100-proof concoction. The spicy, somewhat bourbon-like rye, was selected by master distillers Parker and Craig Beam.
I doubt George Washington would have approved of the price point. As he wrote to his commissary officer on Aug. 20, 1777, “It is necessary there should always be a sufficient quantity of spirits with the Army, to furnish moderate supplies to the Troops. … I should be happy if the exorbitant price to which it has risen could be reduced.”
• Sazerac Straight Rye: Quite different from the average rye, with a sophsticated softness that melds the expected fruit and spice notes of rye whiskey with a soft, oaky topping. Long finish with a distinct cocoa tang.
• Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled-in-Bond Rye: A fine balance of rye's traditional sweet-and-sour tastes, with a long, crisp finish that lingers as a peppery tingle on the tongue.
• Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey: Hits the palate with full force. No wonder, It's aged in uncharred oak and is bottled at barrel strength, so a bit of water or ice is advisable to reduce the heat and open its spicy richness.
• Michter's Small Batch US 1 Unblended: This has the distinct sharpness of grain alcohol moderated by aging in bourbon-soaked white oak barrels that take the edge off the initial sharp, robust taste. Relatively short finish.
• Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye: This 13-year0old offers a mature combination of flavors -- cocoa, vanilla, pepper and spices. The long finish is subtle, even refreshing without the warm, cloying quality of younger ryes.
• Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey: Perfumey quality reminiscent of the distiller's bourbon, but a coffee/leather/spice layering to the nose and taste makes it a distinctive rye.
• Black Maple Hill 23 Yeear Old Straight Rye: An initial burst of brown sugar, heat and spice quickly transforms into a mellow, oaky smoothness. Despite the richness there is an ethereal lightness one seldom experiences in hot ryes. Fruit notes such as apple and pear dance around the edges, but the palate responds again and again to the varied spices. Utterly splendid.
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