Preparing for the Rye Revolution


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On a side table in my grandmother's dining room sat three cut-glass decanters, each with a brass label around its neck: Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye. Long ago, this was the standard trio of the American bar; tequila and vodka were bare gleams in a sot's eye.

Whiskey is no longer the beginning and end of the American liquor experience. Of the three, Scotch has more or less kept its ground, especially after the late-'90s fad for "anything Glen." Bourbon has faded, though Jim Beam and Jack Daniels (not actually a Bourbon, but let's set that aside) remain old standbys. But what happened to Rye?

Rarely has a liquor fallen so quickly and completely from the public's favor. Why? For one, rye lost out in the great wave of distillery consolidations during the middle of the 20th century. That's because, second, Bourbon, being sweeter and more palatable, was easier to market to a public increasingly averse to straight hard alcohol.

Jeff and I sampled all of these neat, or with a little ice or water. We didn't sample them in cocktails or with mixers. That's how we roll.

Rye, which has to be made from a mash bill of at least 51 percent rye (though the rye content is usually much higher), is not for the faint of heart. It is full of spice and kick. Spice is fine in wine, but when we're talking about 100-proof quaffs, it's a bit much. Rye, in other words, got caught in a reinforcing spiral: A growing aversion to strong alcohol led conglomerates to cut rye production; less rye on the shelf meant less familiarity and thus even less demand.

Nevertheless, rye abides, and even flourishes. Several of the stalwart old labels have survived--Old Overholt, Sazerac--and a bevy of new brands hint that a Rye renaissance may be afoot (aided, I suppose, by the sudden popularity of pseudo-speakeasies and Prohibition Era chic). To prepare readers for the rye revolution, I sat down with my friend and fellow rye partisan Jeff Lewandowski to come up with a cheat sheet for twelve ryes, in rough order of preference*.

1. Van Winkle Family Reserve (13 years old; 95.6 proof; $75): Easily my favorite rye, this drink couldn't differ more from the brash four year olds like Rittenhouse. Though it's on the heavy side at 95.6 proof, it's almost as sweet as Bourbon. It pours a pleasant scarlet, like a deep blush, and has a thick, full mouth feel. Maple candy and toffee dominate the nose, while the taste is a delicate balance of vanilla and light spices. It has a long, sweet finish, leaving an echoing flavor of caramel chews. Perfect.

2. Hirsch (22 years old; 93 proof; $135): This was Jeff's pick of the litter. Hard to find, but worth the hunt, this rye proves that the guys behind Hirsch 16-year Bourbon--a legendary expression which they found in a warehouse and bottled under a new label--weren't just lucky. It is one of the fullest-bodied ryes we tried; despite mellowing for 22 years, the grain spiciness hits you right away. But it is accompanied by a raft of complex vanilla, toffee, honey, and vanilla notes in both the aroma and the taste.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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