Within the bubble of spirits and cocktail enthusiasts (i.e., geeks), the small and the obscure has much more cachet than the big and the well-known. That’s why craft bartenders eschew vodka for foreign bottles you will never find in your corner liquor store. And that’s why a small distillery seems to have more credibility than multinational brands. In this way, spirits are no different than any other thing in the popular culture that people wear as a talisman of cool.
I’m certainly not immune to this. I have advocated for my fair share of strange, rare or simply hard-to-find drinks. A bitter Italian amaro made from artichokes. A 16th-century precursor to gin from Holland. Whiskey from Japan. Peach brandy.
For once, however, I’m not going to act like the snarky, aging hipster employee in a record shop. Instead, this column is about American rye whiskey, which I want to suggest is one category of spirits in which we shouldn’t pretend that small is always a virtue.
Let me explain. When the mixology renaissance began in the mid-2000s, one of the first spirits to be rediscovered and served at better cocktail bars was rye whiskey. Rye’s story has often been told: It was early America’s favorite spirit; George Washington even distilled it at Mount Vernon. Before Prohibition, the whiskey of choice in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast was rye. After Prohibition, American rye almost disappeared.
So what is rye? It’s akin to bourbon in its barrel aging, but the big difference is that by law, straight rye whiskey must be from a mash of no less than 51 percent rye, compared with 51 percent corn for bourbon. Next to bourbon, rye is spicier, less sweet and often more complex, with unusual peppery and bitter undertones. During Prohibition, when whiskey flowed over the border from Canada, the word “rye” began to be erroneously used to describe Canadian whisky — though most contemporary Canadian whiskys contain only a small amount of rye.
By the late 20th century, true American rye could be found only in old-man bars, surviving in brands such as Rittenhouse Rye ($14) and Old Overholt ($12). Even in the Washington area, one of rye’s traditional regions, it was hit-or-miss availability.
Then, suddenly, in the late 2000s, we were swimming in rye. Sales of rye have surged over the past five years, including a 27 percent rise last year alone.
Wonderful ryes from small producers such as Tuthilltown in New York’s Hudson Valley, High West in Utah, Templeton in Iowa and Catoctin Creek in Virginia have popped up on shelves, with impressive quality. But there’s a problem. Although I urge you to seek out craft distillers such as these — all of whom make amazing ryes — even I get aggravated by the spotty availability of their products. Spirits enthusiasts (i.e., geeks) may know where to find small-batch ryes, but it isn’t like the average liquor store is stocking those spirits.
When it comes to rye, I often find myself suggesting the bigger, familiar brands. After numerous tastings, though, I don’t feel the quality falls off much. My go-to rye for a few years has been the Russell’s Reserve six-year-old rye (produced by Wild Turkey, owned by Gruppo Campari), followed closely by Bulleit Rye (launched in 2011 by liquor giant Diageo and made at the Four Rose Distillery). Both cost about $25, making them among the best liquor store values.
Another pair of recent big-brand releases confirms my position: Wild Turkey 81 Rye ($23) and Knob Creek Rye ($40). Although some whiskey snobs will scoff at its proof, Wild Turkey 81 offers a good introduction for the newbie whiskey drinker who hasn’t worked his or her way up to Wild Turkey’s 101-proof offering. Knob Creek, on the other hand, offers big, complex flavor at 100 proof, making it perfect for sipping neat or mixing in a cocktail.
I tasted both new bottlings in the Frisco, a cocktail I recently discovered. The Bendectine brings out the best qualities in rye, and the drink (along with the Manhattan) has become an official rye cocktail tester — the same way I test new rums in a daiquiri, or new gins in a martini.
As a matter of fact, I encourage you to try ryes from microdistillers and giant corporations mixed in the Frisco. Then you can tell me whether smaller is better.