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Tony Sachs

Tony Sachs

Posted: July 4, 2010 08:34 AM

The Spirit Of America: Rye Whiskeys For The Fourth Of July, And Every Other Day



With July 4th at hand, it's time to pay tribute to those uniquely American inventions that have made this country great. Baseball. Jazz. Blue jeans. Match Game '76. Loaded baked potatoes. Tina Louise. And perhaps the greatest of all -- rye whiskey.

Bourbon has been, since the 1930s, America's most popular homegrown whiskey. But rye is the spirit that best represents the spirit of this great country of ours. It's been distilled in the States since the States were the Colonies. Hell, George Washington himself was a rye distiller. Well into the 20th century, if you said, "Gimme a whiskey" at a tavern in Tuskegee, a saloon in Sacramento, or a watering hole in Wilmington, a slug of rye is what you'd get. In fact, most of the whiskey cocktails we know as bourbon-based, such as the Sazerac, the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, were originally made with rye.

WHAT THE HECK IS RYE WHISKEY, ANYWAY?

Rye, a close cousin to bourbon, is so called because it's made using at least 51% rye in the mash from which it's distilled. That grain gives it a more complex and spicy flavor than bourbon, which employs at least 51% corn for a sweeter, fuller bodied drink. Rye's complexity isn't for everyone, and for decades, it was for practically no one. As American drinkers gravitated towards smoother spirits like bourbon, Canadian blended whiskeys, and (heaven forbid) vodka, rye nearly fell off the booze radar completely. Thankfully, with the rise of Cocktail Nation, vintage liqueurs and spirits were revived, including rye. It's now in vogue among cocktailians and once again available on the shelves of any liquor store worth walking into.

Given how tough it was to find at all a mere 10-15 years ago, the number of ryes now out there, ranging from inexpensive brands best employed in cocktails to ultra-pricey, super-aged sipping whiskeys, is staggering. What follows is a list of some of the ryes I've had the pleasure of trying, most of them over the last few years, as the Rye Renaissance has hit full speed. I've separated them by category -- not necessarily how the distillers group them, but more how my palate perceives them. If you disagree with my take on a particular whiskey, or you've got a favorite rye that I haven't mentioned, feel free to include it in the Comments section.

STARTER RYES

Because rye is pretty powerful tasting stuff with a very distinct flavor profile, you may not want to leap in with both feet at first. These lighter, less spicy ryes are a good entry point for newcomers to the rye game, and a nice change of pace for rye fans accustomed to the more powerful stuff.

Russell's Reserve 6 Year Old
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Russell's Reserve 6 Year Old (the age refers to how long it's been sitting in new American oak barrels), produced by Wild Turkey, has a light, golden color that reflects its flavor. It mixes fruit and a touch of vanilla with rye's traditional grain and pepper. It's not terribly complex, but for rye, it does go down smooth.
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THE CLASSICS

Rye whiskey fell out of favor after the end of Prohibition and didn't really make a comeback until the turn of the millennium. But throughout rye's lost decades, a few intrepid distillers kept the flame burning for the few imbibers who still drank the stuff. Three of them remain among my favorite ryes, regardless of all the whiskey-come-latelies popping up every year.

Old Overholt
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When I started drinking rye in the mid '90s, there was only one brand I could reliably track down without too much difficulty -- Old Overholt, which has been around for just about two centuries. It's now made in Kentucky instead of Pennsylvania, where it was produced along with many of the great bygone ryes of yore. It's distilled and aged differently than in pre-Prohibition days. But no matter. Because I started out with Old Overholt, it will probably always be the template by which I measure rye whiskey.

And with good reason. Its dry spiciness, with grassy notes and traces of apple and rice, give you a good idea of what rye is all about, but its young age (four years in charred new oak barrels) gives it a light, clean feel that won't overwhelm novices. It's very nice when consumed straight or on the rocks, but I prefer it in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. And at $10-15 a bottle, it's hard to find a better bang for your buck.
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NOTABLE NEWBIES

Sometimes it seems like every craft distiller and his uncle Herman is making rye whiskey in some tiny distillery in the middle of Anytown, U.S.A. And what's wrong with that? Sadly -- tragically, even -- the vast majority of these microbrewed ryes have not yet mingled with my taste buds. But of the recent rye arrivals I have tried, here are three of the best.

Redemption Rye
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Redemption Rye, first made available in May, is distilled in the heart of Indiana, using a mash that's a whopping 95% rye (most ryes use a mixture of rye, barley and wheat or corn in their mash). It's a straight rye whiskey, which means it's been aged in charred new oak barrels for at least two years, but I doubt it's been aged much longer than that. This is a vibrant, lively and youthful-tasting concoction. It's got a nose full of ginger and cloves, and when it first meets the tongue, the flavor is as much citrus and honey as the traditional pepper and grain notes of rye. It takes a while to unfold in the mouth, unleashing layers of vanilla and caramel along with a moderate spicy kick. From my tasting notes, you'd almost think I'm describing a bourbon, but this baby is rye through and through. Be on the lookout for Redemption's limited barrel proof bottling, due in August, which may be even better than the standard stuff.
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SERIOUS SIPPERS

All the ryes I've mentioned thus far are suitable for mixing in cocktails. But then there are those which are simply too glorious -- not to mention expensive -- to mingle with mixers, except for possibly some ice or a few drops of water. If you've got the budget and the inclination to try rye at its rye-est, here are a few sipping ryes that will change your life, or at least brighten your night.

 
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Old Potrero 18th century
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Manufactured by the Anchor Brewing Company (best known for their Anchor Steam beer) in San Francisco, Old Potrero makes three ryes, each one designed to replicate a bygone style of whiskey from when rye was king. My favorite is the 18th Century Style. To create a rye that wouldn't have been out of place on July 4, 1776, the Old Potrero folks take a 100% rye mash and age it for a mere 25 months in oak barrels that are toasted but not charred, same as the founding fathers of American booze did. The result is a hot (62.25% alcohol) young rye that's not for the faint of heart. The spicy tingle starts at the tip of the tongue and increases from there. You can really taste the grain and then wood, along with traces of citrus. It's oily finish carries just a slight hint of gasoline, thanks to the high alcohol content. Beware -- this stuff will get you buzzed, but fast.
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There are loads of other worthwhile ryes out there, but I've only got one liver, and I'd like to keep it. This is where you, the reader/rye enthusiast, come in. What's your favorite rye? What's your favorite rye-based cocktail? And how will you be toasting the US of A on its 234th birthday? Don't be shy -- a little education is always a good thing, especially when it comes to whiskey.

 

Follow Tony Sachs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RetroManNYC