This is the first post from Chuck Taggart, a dedicated amateur cocktailian and radio host in Los Angeles. He publishes The Gumbo Pages.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David (along with Diana Ross and a gazillion other singers) would say that it’s love, sweet love … and they’re right, of course. Around our house, though, we have a slightly different saying: “What the world needs now is more rye cocktails.”
I’m a rye whiskey fanatic, and it’s mostly thanks to my hometown’s signature cocktail, the Sazerac. That elixir, for me the apotheosis of cocktails, has been made with rye whiskey since about the 1870s, since that lousy Mr. Phylloxera put the kibosh on the French wine and Cognac industry. Rye, by far the dominant whiskey in America at the time, stepped right in and filled the bill perfectly. The drink’s original formulation with Cognac was (and still is) lovely, but the spicy characteristics of rye whiskey was like adding an extra horn section to its symphony of flavor.
Not only does rye taste great in a Sazerac, but also in yet another quintessential cocktail, the Manhattan. The drink was created with rye, and although I love Bourbon too the difference between a Manhattan made with Bourbon and one made with rye is considerable. A rye Manhattan is a stellar cocktail, the dryness of the rye balancing beautifully with the sweetness of the vermouth. Aaaah. (Excuse me for a minute, I have to go run and make one now.)
(… *mix*stir*sip* … aaah.)
Having become a rye fanatic years ago, I often find myself frustrated when going to bars and seeking out rye whiskey. I suspect some of you may share this. For instance … how many times has this happened to you? You ask the bartender what kind of rye whiskey they have, and are presented with a bottle of blended Canadian whiskey? Your shoulders droop a bit, you sigh quietly so as not to offend, and you proceed to accept the Canadian or order your Manhattan with Bourbon, even though it’s not quite what you wanted.
Straight rye whiskey must by law be made with a minimum of 51% rye grain in the mash, which gives the whiskey that wonderfully spicy, peppery characteristic as well as its dryness. This is its great difference from Bourbon, the dominant American whiskey these days, which is made with 51% corn. The sweetness of Bourbon is absent in rye, and this can make a huge difference in some of our more well-known whiskey cocktails.
Rye was what Americans drank. When the gunslinger sidled up to the bar in the Old West, narrowed his eyes and droned the single word “whiskey” to the barkeep, he was given a measure of rye. The balance shifted from rye to Bourbon because rye whiskey got a raw deal. Its longtime scarcity, which lingers in many bars to this day, is a continuing aftereffect of Prohibition … ah, its long, ugly arm still smites us. The (Not-So-) Great Experiment put an end to distilling in the United States, but by the time we came to our national senses the rye distilleries of the East were already long gone while the Bourbon distilleries who closed shop and waited it out were ready to get going again. Canadian blended whiskey also filled the bill, and in the early days it was made with a large amount of rye in its mash; this is what gave people the impression that Canadian and rye whiskies were interchangeable (today actually very little rye is used in making blended Canadian whiskey). Rye very nearly became nothing more than a historical curiosity, with only three distillers continuing to make it during its post-Prohibition scarcity.
This is now changing, to the great joy of cocktailians and spirits lovers everywhere. The old diehards are still with us, and fantastic new rye whiskies have been emerging. We’ll be learning more about this history, about what’s available to us now, and what’s coming in the future, at one of my most-anticipated sessions at Tales this year — “Rye Nation”, led by Allen Katz of Southern Wine and Spirits and presented by the producers of some of my very favorite ryes — Sazerac (with a wonderfully fruity, spicy and downright funky flavor profile, perfect in its namesake cocktail) and Rittenhouse (a powerful and startlingly affordable whiskey that makes a Platonic Manhattan), who along with the folks from Wild Turkey and Vintage Ryes will be presenting several ryes to taste, as well as mixing up some rye cocktails.
What’ll we have? Sazerac? Manhattan? Blinker? Cocktail à la Louisiane? Perhaps something new? If you’re still new to rye whiskey I suspect that after this seminar you’ll be singing that old song about love sweet love, and mangling the words to sing the praises of rye cocktails too.