A native-born alcohol enjoys a revival
It was once in the same category as driving boxy Lincoln Continentals, eating dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon and chasing neighborhood kids off the lawn.
You know, things old people do.
Such had become the fate of drinking rye whiskey. After a glorious 200-year history of being one of, if not the most native-born of American alcohols that survived wars, Prohibition and temperance marchers, rye entered the post-World War II era on life support.
Here was a liquor this country’s own first president, George Washington, made and sold in great quantities suddenly becoming the symbol of drunkenness and old age. It was grandpa’s stash. It was the swig of choice among the alley dwellers. Oh, and that 1945 movie “The Lost Weekend?” It was rye whiskey Hollywood chose to make Ray Milland lose it.
It didn’t help that during Prohibition, the people most associated with rye had names like Al Capone.
As drinking trends go, the country turned away from brown liquors in the latter half of the 20th century. It was rye whiskey it turned away from first.
Well, that was then, and this is now. Look who’s back from rehab.
In less than 10 years, the volume of rye whiskey production in the United States has increased more than 500 percent. A beneficiary of the craft distillery movement in this country, American rye is following on the coattails of a similar, albeit larger, increase in bourbon production. A new generation has discovered the spicy, grainy, grassy flavors of this whiskey and embraced it.
Not only have they embraced it for drinking, they’ve embraced it for making and selling. From Vermont to Utah to Iowa to Texas and even the heart of bourbon country — Tennessee and Kentucky — there are rye whiskey distillers going full steam. Famous bourbon brands like Wild Turkey, George Dickel, Heaven Hill, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam now have their names on rye whiskey labels as well as bourbon. Even at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a distillery has opened using his original recipes and methods.
“The people who are asking us for rye now are almost always young people,” said Taylor Westmoreland, the bartender at Riondo’s Ristorante on The Strand in Galveston’s downtown. “We had this one man who was 22. I know he was 22, because I checked his ID twice. He specifically asked for rye, asked about what kinds we had, and really knew a lot about it. I was impressed.”
Long considered more of a “Northern” drink by most Southern bourbon sippers, rye whiskey’s history in this country goes back 300 years or more. The centers of its origins are in Pennsylvania and Maryland where, by no coincidence, early settlements of Scotch-Irish popped up. In setting up their own small distilleries, they soon learned, to their dismay, the barley they were accustomed to using in making whiskey did not grow well in the new climate. Rye, however, did. A new liquor was born.
While made much the same way, the key difference between rye whiskey and bourbon is in the ingredients. Bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, while rye must be at least 51 percent rye. Other government requirements say rye can be distilled no higher than 160 proof, aged no higher than 125, and bottled no lower than 80. Both rye and bourbon are aged in charred oak barrels, although rye often is aged for a shorter time. Note, this only refers to American rye. Canadian rye is an entirely different beast with almost no specifications on how it’s made or what’s in it. It doesn’t even have to use rye.
“Bourbons tend to be more sweet and caramel-like,” Westmoreland said. “Rye tends to be more stout. I think it’s why we do see more men drink rye, because women here still prefer the sweeter taste of bourbon.”
One way to envision the differences in flavor is to think about the taste of biting down on a kernel of fresh corn. Then think of crunching into a rye seed from the bread. A New York Times writer, researching for a story on the return of rye, had a chance to taste from a pre-Prohibition bottle. History, he wrote, tastes like “wet forest with a turpentine finish.”
A lot of people today like to drink their rye straight, sometimes chilled, but to not use rye in a cocktail is most certainly insulting its greatest contributions to cocktail history. In the 1800s, considered the time when cocktails in America took hold, it was rye that appeared in almost every drink. All the old classics like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac all started with rye.
In truth, almost any cocktail one would make with bourbon can be made with rye, but it’s worth keeping in mind that rye is no sissy. It lets the drinker know it’s in there. Most rye cocktails need to include some kind of sweetener and usually a few drops of bitters to smooth them out. Make the exact same cocktail with bourbon to compare, and there will be no guessing on which one was made with rye.
At Riondo’s, Westmoreland has a menu of several classic cocktails using rye, some with her own take on older recipes. The restaurant carries three brands of rye, including WhistlePig Rye Whiskey out of Vermont, Herman-Marshall Texas Rye Whiskey based in Garland, Texas, and High West Rye Whiskey in Utah. Riondo’s owner, Don McClaugherty, is originally from Utah and even designed a decorative bottle wall in the restaurant that’s based on a similar one at a distillery in Utah.
No longer grandpa’s drink, rye’s return to the mainstream of cocktail popularity is like welcoming the return of a truly American hero. One can almost make drinking it a patriotic thing.
RIONDO’S ITALIAN OLD FASHIONED
Created by Taylor Westmoreland, bartender at Riondo’s Ristorante in Galveston
2 maraschino cherries
½ circle from a slice of a fresh orange
1 teaspoon simple syrup (or 1 teaspoon sugar)
1 dash Angostura bitters
1½ ounces High West Double Rye Whiskey
½ ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
Prepare a lowball glass with 2 maraschino cherries and a half circle slice of fresh orange. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar or simple syrup (preferred) and a dash of Angostura bitters. Gently muddle in glass.
Fill glass with ice. Gently and briefly stir cocktail, making sure not to agitate ice excessively.
This cocktail is best enjoyed sipping by the rim rather than through a straw.