Despite the lingering warm (OK, hot) temperatures I have caved to seasonal pressure and am making, begrudgingly, the transition to fall. Recipes like the one to follow soften the blow as this is surely a taste of the season. It’s also quite trendy as rye whiskey continues to be “the” spirit of the moment. It’s not new, though; rye whiskey has been around, and popular, since colonial times. Particularly up north, rye was the spirit of choice no doubt is part because those cooler areas are where rye seems to grow best. Further south, as in, say Georgia, our climate was more conducive to growing corn, so our whiskey used that as a base.
What, you might ask (I know I did) is rye whiskey? How does it differ from bourbon? The key is the main ingredient. By law, rye whiskey must contain a minimum of 51 percent rye — a grain closely related to barley. Rye produces a whiskey with a distinctly spicier character than corn, which tends to be sweeter. Using the connotation “dry” (as in a martini or wine), rye produces a drier cocktail than does corn. You can easily discern this critical difference by pouring a taste of Jack Daniels in a glass and sipping it followed by a taste of any rye; the sweetness of the corn liquor will be readily apparent.
The legal requirements for rye, in addition to the grain, also prescribes a maximum of 80 proof and aging in charred new oak barrels. Rye aged at least 2 years and not blended with another spirit can be labelled “straight” rye whiskey.
Our first president, ol’ George Washington, grew tons of rye at his plantation in Virginia — and, yes, he distilled rye whiskey. To this day, in fact, one can buy a rye product said to be similar to what the father of our country turned out. The reconstructed distillery, opened in 2007, produces 5,000 gallons of rye whiskey each year. Unfortunately, it is for sale only at Mount Vernon — so I can’t comment on its taste.
I can, however, offer a few words on other — less historic — ryes. One I particularly enjoy is Old Overholt. This one, it turns out, is fairly historic in that the brand survived Prohibition and went on to make a comeback in the modern era. A big selling point: it’s cheap (usually $18 or so for a 750 ml bottle). This gem, first produced in 1810, is aged 3 years and makes a terrific spicy Old Fashioned. I’m using it in a cocktail that will brighten any fall gathering — from football to a gathering around the fire pit.
CARAMEL RYE MANHATTAN
2 oz. Old Overholt rye whisky
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes walnut bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
Splash Turbinado sugar simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake thoroughly for one minute. Strain in a martini class and serve with a flamed orange peel.
Although the bitters may sound exotic they’re not; these days many grocery stores, and certainly your favorite liquor purveyor, likely offers a selection of bitters that boggles the mind. Don’t overlook the Turbinado simple syrup — it’s key to the flavor profile. Plus it’s simple to make. Turbinado is just that brown sugar (like Sugar in the Raw) that is less processed than white and retains a pleasant molasses quality. This is what gives you the “caramel” component of this drink. Remember: simple syrup, Turbinado or otherwise, is just equal parts water and sugar.
One cannot discuss rye cocktails without mentioning the Sazerac. Now, admittedly, the original N’Awlins recipe called for bourbon, but the Sazerac Co. itself promotes a less-sweet rye cocktail featuring (imagine!) their own Sazerac Rye. The hints of anise, clove, pepper and vanilla are to me an improvement on the original.
A WRY TAKE ON SAZERAC
1 cube sugar
1½ oz. Sazerac Rye Whiskey
¼ oz. Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters Lemon peel
• Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice
• In a second Old-Fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube
• Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar
• Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint
Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.
Whew! Did this exhaust you as it did me? I had to have a sit-down and a sip of the straight rye to muddle through ‘til the end. And, woe is me, I was fresh out of Herbsaint (Fine – I admit … I never had any). I substituted a dab of absinthe instead. That (in my opinion foul) liqueur is often used in various Sazerac recipes anyway, and I still had a bit on hand.
The Sazerac was invented back in 1838 at an apothecary owned by Antoine Peychaud in the drinking city of New Orleans. He invented the namesake bitters as well. Originally using brandy the recipe morphed over the years to utilize bourbon, and now, with rye’s burgeoning popularity, encompasses that spirit.
And rye is definitely popular. All the big bourbon players are elbowing into the game: Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Knob Creek.
One very successful rye is Bulleit. This bourbon maker (pronounced just like ammunition) jumped on the rye bandwagon early on. Produced in Kentucky at the Four Roses distillery, I love the retro look of the distinctive bottle. It always makes me think of an Old West saloon — where dusty cowboys and gunslingers laconically ordered whiskey, and then added “leave the bottle.” I’ve always wanted to say that, and Bulleit looks like the right bottle.
Bulleit is rye in a big way — 95 percent rye — with just a touch of barley. This makes it a rye not for the meek. It’s spicy and gives the consumer a true taste of what rye is all about. Bulleit is also deceptively smooth — so if the bartender does leave the bottle, go easy, partner.
For many of us, our knowledge of rye whiskey was previously limited to that line from Dan McLean’s anthem about Miss American Pie: “them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye.” Now you know that, though similar, the two are quite different. And for cool weather mixing or sipping it’s worth it to try rye.