Preparing for the Rye Revolution

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7. Sazarac Straight Rye (6 years old, 90 proof; $25): Perhaps the most well-known rye, it was made famous by the 19th-century recipe for the cocktail of the same name (both the whiskey and the cocktail are named for the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans). Now part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, this rye is spicy from nose to finish, with hints of licorice and bananas as the taste unfolds. Buffalo Trace also makes an 18-year-old, which is one of the distillery's winningest products.

8. Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond (4 years old; 100 proof; $16): The term "bottled in bond" is often mistaken as a guarantee of quality. The term means, simply, that the whiskey was produced under the "bond" of the 1897 federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits--meaning it is the product of one distillation, one distiller, and one distillery. In the old days, this prevented fly-by-night operations from buying the dregs of several distilleries and bottling it themselves; today there is enough consumer and regulatory attention that only the bottom of the bottom-shelf whiskeys would do such a thing.

At the same time, there's nothing per se wrong with mixing different bourbons to come up with a better product--it's all in the art of the distiller. What bottled-in-bond means, then, is that the distillery is touting the skill of its distiller to produce a singular great product. The difference comes through in Heaven Hill's Rittenhouse Rye BiB, which is the upmarket version of its 80-proof regular rye. While the lower-proof expression is a watery one-noter, Jeff found that the BiB has a pleasing aroma of wormwood and poblano pepper, while strong black pepper taste and hints of orange and oak populate the taste, finishing with more pepper and oak. But this is by no means a great rye--there's too much alcohol, and the mouth feel is a bit thin.

9. Pikesville Rye (4 years old; 80 proof; $12): Though now produced by Heaven Hill in Kentucky, Pikesville claims to be the last of the Maryland ryes. Indeed, the Baltimore area used to be a center of whiskey, and especially rye, production. It pours an orange-yellow, with an aroma of brown sugar and citrus. For a low-price rye, it has a surprisingly full mouth feel, and it comes with a wide spectrum of flavors, from buttery caramel and licorice to rye and spice.

10. Michter's Rye (3 years old; 84.8 proof; $40): This is a solid if unstellar rye. Everything is just a tad off about it: The color is pleasant, but the aroma is just a bit astringent, accompanied by forest scents. The mouth feel is a bit too syrupy, and the taste is a little too much rye and not enough supporting flavors, though Jeff found the finish an interesting blend of cayenne peppers and pungent caraway seeds. Still, it might make up in attitude what it lacks in character--as Jeff said, "It reminds of what Eastwood's characters might be drinking in the spaghetti western saloons." (To be fair, there is also a 10-year expression, which we did not sample.)

11. Old Overholt (4 years old; 80 proof; $14.99): Allegedly Jack London's whiskey of choice, this is a timeless standby and an ubiquitous presence on the liquor-store shelf; any place with a decent whiskey selection will carry Old Overholt. The color is a wan yellow, with a slightly sweet aroma and a thin mouth feel--Jeff compared it to a flat cola. Like the Russell's, its flavor balances sweetness and acidity, with a nice rye finish.

12. Jim Beam (rī)1 (4 years old; 92 proof; $42): Jim Beam Rye's tarted up little sister. The bottle is a hyper-modern tube with a small neck; the label is minimalist; the name is silly. The promotional material depict it as a modern drink for a modern drinker. If this were just about marketing, I'd be okay with it; we've all gotta make a buck. But the usually reliable folks at Jim Beam messed with the recipe. They watered down--and dumbed down--the rye notes without adding much in the way of compensating complexity. There is no finish to speak of. And am I alone in finding a harsh metallic flavor crossed with a treacly sweetness each time I drink it?

This is by no means a definitive list. Other commonly found, respectable ryes come from Black Maple Hill (in both an 18 and a 23 year expression), Anchor's Old Potrero (which comes in regular, "eighteenth century," and "Hotaling's" expressions), Wild Turkey, Thomas Handy (part of the Buffalo trace Antique Collection), and Kentucky Bourbon Distiller's Willett line. Harder to find ryes include Stranahan's, out of Denver; High West Rendezvous Rye; and New York's own Red Hook 23 year old, which I've heard is out of production.

And of course, a disclaimer: 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. But many whiskeys are made with the understanding that they will be mixed, and so they emphasize certain flavors that fail on their own but complement other ingredients; I'll bet this is the case with (rī)1.

That said, there are more than enough great ryes that carry their own weight. Let the revolution begin!

* Note: Prices are approximate; as with most off-the-beaten-path liquor, they will vary widely among regions, cities, and even stores.

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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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