Preparing for the Rye Revolution

risen_june26_rye_post.jpg

Photo by dan4th/Flickr CC


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.

Presented by

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.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Health

From This Author

Just In