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Spirits

Spirits: Give Me a Hot Trend, on Rye

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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

At the moment, nothing says "I'm a Cocktail Person" more than rye whiskey. In fact, you will probably know you are in a true Cocktail Bar when, on the Cocktail Menu, you notice rye whiskey as an ingredient in more than one drink. Of course, most people -- though they may enjoy cocktails -- are not necessarily Cocktail People. And so rye is a bit of a mystery.

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Think of it this way: Rye whiskey has an awful lot in common with the cool, Emmy-winning television series "Mad Men." Both are critically acclaimed, significantly different from the usual fare and raved about by a relatively small number of devoted fans. Many people have heard a lot about them but perhaps haven't given either a try just yet.

There is a lot of confusion about what exactly rye is. Newbies to the spirit might feel a little like "Mad Men" secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson on her first day at the fictional early-1960s Madison Avenue ad agency, Sterling Cooper. After poor Peggy has been harassed by the guys and is advised to show off "those darling little ankles," her supervisor, Miss Holloway, suggests how to deal with her new boss, the dashing, charming antihero, Don Draper: "Keep a fifth of something in your desk. Mr. Draper drinks rye."

"Rye is Canadian, right?" Peggy asks.

"You'd better find out," she's told.

Don Draper's "rye" of choice is in fact Canadian whiskey. During the mid-century "Mad Men" era, Canadian whiskies (such as Crown Royal and Canadian Club) were often called rye, whether they contained much rye at all. That is not the rye you're finding now on trendy cocktail menus.

The rye we're talking about is as American as it gets. George Washington distilled the stuff at Mount Vernon. (You can visit his distillery there.) A long time ago, you could find small producers of rye throughout the Northeast, particularly in Pennsylvania and Maryland. But, in what sadly has become the master narrative of the spirits industry, very few brands survived Prohibition. "Rye was much more the whiskey of mixing choice before bourbon," says Chantal Tseng, bartender at Tabard Inn, who makes a number of interesting rye cocktails, including what must be the best Sazerac in town.

Straight rye whiskey, which is the kind of rye you should seek out, can be made only from a mash of no less than 51 percent rye and must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels. Rye is much spicier and often more complex than bourbon, with unusual peppery and bitter undertones, all of which works really well with changing tastes in cocktails. "There is definitely a taste trend toward less sweet going on," Tseng says.

Using rye instead of bourbon in a Manhattan is one example of moving from sweet to spice. I'm always trying variations on the Manhattan, and one of the most alluring aspects of rye is how well it mixes in a Manhattan with different Italian amari, such as Punt e Mes, Cynar or Averna, instead of the sweet vermouth. One friend, Seattle Weekly drinks columnist Maggie Dutton, swears by a drink that's equal parts rye and Ramazzotti. I concur. Beyond amaro, rye also stands up to the herbs in liqueurs such as Benedictine and fortified wines such as Dubonnet in further variations on the Manhattan.

What I like best about rye is how affordable it is. Some of the best go-to brands (Rittenhouse Rye, Old Overholt, Jim Beam) retail for $17 or under. In some cocktails using heavier liqueurs, I steer toward the 100-proof versions, such as Rittenhouse or Wild Turkey 101. In others, using vermouth or other fortified wines, I'll go with something closer to 80 proof, such as Old Overholt or Michter's.

Of course, as with any category rising in popularity, a number of more expensive offerings have come on the market. Sazerac six-year-old, at about $30, is excellent and worth the money. Meanwhile, Jim Beam recently released a new rye with a mod design and a pseudo-mathematical equation as a name: (ri){+1}. It's not bad -- a little more approachable and bourbonlike than most rye -- but I'm not sure I can justify the $50 price tag. My favorite upscale rye is Tuthilltown Spirits Hudson Manhattan Rye, which goes for $35 for a small 375-milliliter bottle.

If this were 1960 and your first day working in a Madison Avenue ad agency, I might even suggest keeping a bottle in your desk.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.comor food@washpost.com.


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