After a history going back more than two centuries in America, rye whisky is trendy again.
Rye became the center of controversy during the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, when a tax was levied against farmers and distillers to help pay off America’s Revolutionary War debt. The citizens rebelled, and President George Washington dispatched a militia to put down the uprising. The president, ironically, was distilling his own rye at Mount Vernon (the restored distillery is operating again today, courtesy of the Distilled Spirits Council, and produces a limited quantity of whiskey).
The market for rye whiskey—along with most other brown spirits—evaporated during the vodka boom of the 1970s and 1980s. By the time the cocktail culture rose again from the dead toward the end of the twentieth century, very few producers were making rye. The grain formed part of the mash bill formula for most bourbons, and a certain amount of rye was blended into other whiskeys, but it had ceased to be fashionable on its own.
The current boom in rye whiskey, spearheaded by a legion of cutting-edge mixologists, took the industry by surprise. The mixologists were seeking flavor, which rye has in abundance: The whiskey is dramatic, firm and spicy, with assertive flavors of toasted grain and pepper. Rye had been the original foundation of the Manhattan, after all, so it made sense that it form the basis for a new range of designer cocktails. It’s still in short supply, although most distilleries have increased production to meet demand (Canadian whiskey is often labeled as rye but is not obligated by law to contain any, whereas rye whiskey here is distilled from at least 51 percent rye).
One of the most famous brands is Sazerac. The Sazerac cocktail was originally made with Cognac, but bartenders turned to rye when the Cognac supply disappeared after the phylloxera epidemic in nineteenth-century France that plagued the country’s grapevines. Today the Sazerac Company produces two versions, a six-year-old (around $35) and the 18-year-old ($100), named the world’s best by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2010 (the spirits equivalent of winning the Super Bowl).
Today there are a number of high-quality brands available at a reasonable price. Heaven Hill, the bourbon distillery that makes Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, also turns out the layered and complex Rittenhouse Rye ($25). Wild Turkey has just released its 81 Rye (also $25), a tightly focused whiskey with a surprising sweetness that mingles with the spirit’s substantial earthiness.
Toward the high end of the scale there’s Templeton and Michter’s (both $45), as well as the 21-year-old made by the legendary A. H. Hirsch ($130). A personal favorite is WhistlePig, a 100-proof, 10-year-old rye made in Vermont ($70).
In addition to the Sazerac and Manhattan, the whiskey figures in some wonderful classic cocktails. The Vieux Carré, which originated at the bar of New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone, is a variation on the Sazerac: rye, Cognac, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and dashes of both Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. The Brooklyn cocktail, which is a descendant of the Manhattan, features several ounces of rye, an ounce of dry vermouth, several dashes of sweet vermouth (preferably Amer Picon) and often a splash of maraschino liqueur. While the Diamondback is an interesting combination of rye, apple brandy and green Chartreuse, there’s also the Old Fashioned that’s usually associated with bourbon or blended whiskey—but make it with rye instead, and the contrast between the sugar, bitters and spiciness of the spirit will remind you all over again why it’s one of the world’s great cocktails.