Tasting Rye Whiskey, the newly chic drink with a long and patriotic history
by wine & spirits columnist, John Dunham
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”
The above quote, which has been attributed to Mark Twain, aptly describes the First Inaugural Rye Heritage Event which was held in early November at the American Whiskey bar on New York City’s West 30th Street. Hosted by WhistlePig Whiskey, the event featured a seminar on rye whiskey, tastings of a number of brands, and rye based cocktails. Some excellent passed hours dourves from American Whiskey’s kitchen rounded off the event.
For us, the rye seminar was particularly interesting. Nursing a Sazarac cocktail (1.5 oz rye, 1 oz Absinthe, 1 sugar cube and 2 dashes of bitters), we listened to -(author of the Art of American Whiskey) as he guided Dave Pickerell, the Master Distiller at WhistlePig Whiskey nd Hillrock, Alissa Henley, Distiller at George Dickel, and Brendon O’Rourke, Chief Distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits, through a history of the beverage.
Rye has gone through a series of ebbs and flows. I am old enough to remember when the only people drinking rye whiskey were veterans of World War 1. In fact, growing up the only rye drinker I personally knew was my 90-year old uncle who owned a farm in Kansas and enjoyed an entire bottle of Wild Turkey Rye every day.
But rye whiskey is now seeing a resurgence with both men and women. Demand has skyrocketed so quickly that there have actually been regional shortages of the grain needed to make the product. Distillers have been working to meet this demand, through the construction of new distilleries, and adjustments to the techniques used to produce rye whiskey. The resurgence has been brought about by a number of different factors, including, according to Mr. Pickerell, a shift in the American palate from sweet to savory foods, the growth in the “cocktail culture,” brought on by both the hipster generation and the television show Mad Men, and a trend toward drinking less but drinking better.
Patriotic Rye: Prior to the American Revolution, as citizens of the British Empire, most Americans drank rum as their spirit of choice. The product was readily available and inexpensive. However, with the onset of troubles with the Mother Country, many patriotic Americans began to refrain from rum and substitute locally produced whiskey. Since the West hadn’t been settled and most people lived in New England and the Mid Atlantic region , whiskey made from rye was an obvious choice as this was the predominant local grain. In fact, the Hudson Valley of New York was the breadbasket of the New World at the time, and many production distilleries began operating along the river valley. During the war, soldiers were often paid in rye, and even George Washington operated a production distillery at Mount Vernon making rye whiskey.
For the next hundred years or so, rye was the predominant form of whiskey produced in North America, but this began to change as people moved to the mid-west. It is easier to make whiskey from corn, and Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey began to dominate the market. Following prohibition, there was very little rye whiskey production. As Ms. Henley from George Dickel pointed out, distillers would produce rye maybe one week a year, and spend the rest of the time making corn whiskey.
What is Rye Whiskey? By law, rye whiskey must be made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye, distilled to no more than 160 proof and aged in charred, new oak barrels (though many distillers are working with different types of port and sherry barrels to come up with some unique flavor combinations). The hard rye grain produces a huge amount of sticky foam in the distilling process, and there is a lot of clean-up involved. Rye also produces a lower yield than corn so it takes longer to make a barrel of rye than it does to make the same amount of bourbon. But even with the difficulties, demand for rye is growing and more and more distillers are jumping on the bandwagon. WhistlePig, the distillery that sponsored the event, is located in Vermont and is just in the process of bringing a production rye distillery on line. And of course, the Mt. Vernon distillery is a rye production facility. But most rye is still produced in larger bourbon distilleries or contract facilities like MGP (the former Seagrams facility located in Indiana).
Following the seminar, we sampled rye offerings from a number of producers including the Diageo brands Bulleit and Dickel, Whistle Pig, two offerings from High West, Tuthilltown Spirits’ Hudson Manhattan Rye, and three different versions from Hillrock aged in different types of barrels. This was a popular event and we didn’t get the chance to take detailed tasting notes, but (in general), rye tends to be much fruitier and spicier than traditional Bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. Notes of peach, dried apricot and even raisin are prevalent in rye, and there is a spicy, biting character on the finish. This gives rye a much better flavor profile for traditional cocktails like Whiskey sours, Manhattans, the Sazarac and of course the Old Fashioned, all of which were originally made with rye. Personally, we like the character of rye as a sipping whiskey as well, and would suggest some of the Hillrock port or sherry cask products in particular, along with WhistlePig and Bulleit as being on the smoother side. But no matter what rye whiskey you select, you can always expect it to have a unique bold character that makes it truly an American classic.
For more information on the classes and on the Rye Heritage Event or on rye whiskey in general please contact the WhistlePig Ministry of Education at email@example.com