"Go ahead, surprise me."
I told Mickey Moran at the Belmont Lounge. The late afternoon sun cast an orange glow over the old brown wood of the bar and the pressed tin tiles on the ceiling.
I was sampling rye whiskey cocktails, and while the Belmont's list features a tempting Manhattan made with rye, Amaro, and housemade bitters, I was in the mood for something a little more elaborate.
Mickey thought about it a little while, rubbed his chin, then nodded, more to himself than to me. He filled a mixing glass with ice and smoothly and methodically added half a pony of Laird's Applejack followed by a jigger of Old Overholt rye and a little Cynar liqueur. A squirt of simple syrup and a dose of housemade orange bitters, delivered via medicine dropper, topped it off. He strained the mixture into a tall martini glass, then gave a long strip of orange zest a twist over the glass before dropping it in.
"That's a Brolin," he said, placing the glass before me on a white cloth cocktail napkin stamped with "the Belmont" in red ink.
The first sip was crisp and cool and not at all sweet, the orange zest and the Cynar adding tangy and bitter notes to the stiff whiskey foundation.
I suddenly wanted to apologize to rye whiskey for all the years of neglect.
Once the country's most popular whiskey, rye all but disappeared in the wake of Prohibition. For decades, it was rare to find a single bottle on a liquor store shelf, and if you did it was invariably Old Overholt or perhaps Jim Beam's yellow-label variety and was bound to be lonely and covered with a fine layer of dust.
I sipped the Brolin, and Mickey started unloading bottles from cardboard boxes, restocking the bar shelves for the Saturday night rush. From the first box he retrieved a bottle of Bulleit — the green label showing it to be rye, not bourbon. Then two bottles of Rittenhouse. Then one, two, three bottles of Old Overholt.
That's a lot of rye whiskey, I thought. It further confirmed what I had been suspecting for some time: there's a rye revival underway.
I first got wind of it when I stopped into Clarey's Liquors in Mt. Pleasant and found not a stray bottle or two but an entire shelf devoted to rye. Old Mr. Overholt was in good company: Bulleit Rye, Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond, Willett, Jefferson's, and Whistle Pig, too.
"Are you selling a lot of this stuff?" I asked one of the clerks.
"All of a sudden this summer, we can't keep it on the shelves," he said
Dal Conner, a bartender at Proof on King Street, has seen it at his establishment, too. "It's really popular right now," he says. In fact, their Sazerac, which is made with a blend of Bulleit Rye and cognac, is one of their top sellers.
It's high time that brown liquor fans took a closer look at rye. Along with bourbon, Scotch, and Irish, it rounds out the quartet of the world's great whiskeys. Rye and bourbon are fraternal twins, and both their recipes are tightly regulated by the federal government. Both must age in new oak barrels for at least two years. To be called "straight bourbon whiskey," the spirits must be distilled from a mash that's at least 51 percent corn. To be called "straight rye," the mash must be at least 51 percent rye.
Here's an easy way to think about the difference between bourbon and rye: compare a chunk of cornbread to a slice of rye bread. Corn has more sugar and therefore sweeter notes, while rye has a touch of spiciness. Those same flavors carry through to spirits distilled from the grains. Good rye whiskey has spicy, grassy, and cinnamon notes along with a touch of vanilla imparted by the oak barrel. Sip a little of it side by side with bourbon, and the corn-driven sweetness of the bourbon pops right out.
Rye's bracing spiciness is attracting more and more attention, driven largely by the growth in craft cocktails. As historic-minded mixologists dug back into old 19th century bar manuals, they discovered a trove of recipes calling for rye whiskey. One by one, bottles of rye started appearing behind the bars at those serious cocktail establishments where the bartenders make their own bitters and use wooden mallets to smash ice in canvas bags. Those bartenders have started encouraging bourbon lovers to give rye a try, too.
"Most customers don't just come in and order a rye on the rocks," a bartender at the Cocktail Club told me. "They get it in cocktails or get steered toward it when looking for bourbons."
This was echoed by Kris Comstock, a brand manager at Buffalo Trace Distillery, which is known for its bourbons but has recently been adding to its line of rye whiskeys, too. Comstock links the renewed interest in rye to the rise of super-premium bourbon brands. "It's piqued people's curiosity," he says. "It's opened up folks' eyes to American whiskey in general. As they learn more, they try more, and it whets their palate."
Rye has plenty of complex flavors for a connoisseur to enjoy, and those spicy, cinnamon notes can really stand up in a cocktail, too. In fact, cocktails are the perfect use for good rye whiskey. For years, we've been suffering under the notion that if you do anything more with good whiskey than add a few drops of water or a single ice cube you're committing some sort of sacrilege. The experts I consulted said this is nonsense.
Kris Comstock attributes the prejudice to Scotch connoisseurs. "The connection," he says, "is that nice whiskey should be drunk neat because Scotch is a nice whiskey and that's how you drink Scotch, so that must be how you drink good rye whiskey, too."
Nothing could be further from the truth, and that goes for both bourbon and rye. On this point, Comstock invokes the wisdom of the Elmer T. Lee, the 93-year-old master distiller emeritus of Buffalo Trace. "We were drawing samples out of barrels in the warehouse," Comstock recalls. "And a visiting customer had this idea that you should only drink bourbon straight."
The customer took a taste of one of the samples and said, "Elmer, I bet you wouldn't want anyone mixing this with Coca-Cola. What would you get if you mixed this bourbon with Coke?"
"You'd get a damn good bourbon and Coke," Lee replied.
And that goes double for bourbon's older brother.
"Rye is nice," Brooks Reitz of FIG told me, "because that bold character is going to stand up in the final drink, whereas with a bourbon like, say, Makers Mark, you can lose a lot of that sweet personality if you are using it in a cocktail."
There's no better way to sample that character than with a genuine Old Fashioned. It's named such because it was the original recipe for a "cocktail": spirits cut with sugar and bitters. Over the course of the 19th century, as cocktail became a more generic term for a mixed drink, patrons who want the original version took to saying (rather grouchily, I would imagine) "give me an old-fashioned cocktail."
In the 20th century, bartenders inexplicably began debasing this once-noble concoction with muddled oranges and cherries and doses of seltzer water. At Proof, thankfully, they make their Old Fashioned ($8) the proper way — an old-fashioned Old Fashioned, if you will. They start by muddling sugar cubes with Angostura bitters, then stirring in Jim Beam Rye (stirring, that is, not shaking). A single long curl of orange zest adds a touch of citrus oil and, along with a single brandied cherry, makes for an elegant garnish, too. It's a crisp, sturdy cocktail and a splendid introduction to rye's mixing power.
Rye whiskey plays well with other liquors, too. The Cocktail Club's Cloak & Dagger ($11) blends equal parts Bulleit Rye and Oronoco Rum with ginger syrup, beet, and pineapple juices, plus a float of port over the top and a touch of lemon juice swiped around the rim of the glass. As befits the name, the rye slips unassumingly into the background — smooth and dangerous — while the beet juice creates a diversion with its deep ruby color and the ginger syrup adds sharp prickles of spice.
Such combinations may be okay for a workhorse whiskey like Bulleit, but if you're going to shell out 40 bucks for a bottle of Willett or 70 for Sazerac 18 Year, should you really mix it with other stuff?
"If I was going to use a higher-end rye," Brooks Reitz says, "I would want to use it in something classic and stirred like the Manhattan or the Remember the Maine." Both are drinks in which all the ingredients are alcoholic. The Manhattan has just rye, vermouth, and bitters, and the Remember the Maine adds in cherry brandy and a touch of absinthe. There's no sugar or fruit to paper over any flaws in the whiskey. "With a lot of the booze-driven cocktails, you're really depending on the quality of the spirits to drive the results," Reitz says. "You get the purity of that spirit shining through at the end."
Now, I've been putting this part off, but sooner or later I'm just going to have to come out and say it: we Southerners need to disabuse ourselves of the delusion that bourbon is the "quintessential spirit of the South." Bourbon is about as authentically Southern as Hazzard County, Ga., and Bo and Luke Duke.
Yes, I know I'm uttering heresy, and this kind of talk may well get me banned from the bar at Husk and escorted out of the next Southern Foodways Alliance symposium. But, there's been a grave historical injustice, and it needs correcting.
Rye whiskey, not bourbon, should properly bear the mantle of the South's favorite spirit. If you found a Southerner drinking whiskey in the 19th century, odds are it was rye, not bourbon. By the 1820s, a full decade before anyone had ever heard of "Old Bourbon" whiskey from Kentucky, Southerners had developed a taste for "Old Monongahela" rye, named for the Pennsylvania river valley that was dotted with distilleries. After the Civil War, it replaced brandy and rum as the spirit of choice in the South.
"All of the classic old whiskey drinks are made with rye," Brooks Reitz notes. "Our grandfathers were drinking rye nine times out of ten."
In saloons and hotel bars they sipped their cocktails of rye, sugar, and bitters, and they tossed back rye juleps steeped with mint, too. Rye was enjoyed by both sexes at balls and parties. The recipe for the legendary Charleston Light Dragoon Punch, as captured in Charleston Receipts (1950), has as its base three gallons of rye whiskey augmented by two quarts of rum, green tea leaves, and lots of fruit. The Cotillion Club Punch begins with eight quarts of rye infused with green tea and sugar syrup, while Mrs. Gammell Waring's recipe for eggnog begins with a pint of rye whiskey. Bourbon doesn't enter into it.
Need empirical evidence? Examine the records of the South Carolina Dispensary, that curious experiment in alcohol control which, starting in 1893, operated as a state-run monopoly on liquor sales. In 1907, the year the Dispensary was abolished, its central warehouse held 106,000 gallons of liquor. 58 percent of it was rye whiskey; only 26 percent was corn. That corn stuff was not bourbon, either, but cheap, unaged whiskey distilled largely in North Carolina and Georgia. Rye whiskey was the good stuff, corn liquor the cheap drunk.
So what happened to rye? Prohibition is the usual suspect. The 18th Amendment shuttered American distilleries and put most of the old firms out of business forever. In the wake of Repeal, all brown liquors struggled against Americans' newfound taste for gin and vodka, but bourbon — perhaps because of its sweeter character or perhaps due to better marketing — managed to hang on long enough to experience a revival in the 1980s. Rye slid slowly and steadily into obscurity. In 2005, Jim Beam, whose Old Overholt and Jim Beam Rye brands made it the country's largest rye producer, shipped 3.9 million cases of bourbon. It sold only 32,000 cases of rye.
At rye's lowest moment, though, the seeds of its rebirth were being sown. In 2006 Eric Asimov of the New York Times declared rye "the world's great forgotten spirit," and, with considerable effort, cobbled together enough brands for a tasting. That and a few other articles marked a ripple of interest in rye, perhaps just enough for distillers to start socking a little more away in barrels to age. "People are gearing up," Paul Joseph, the president of CVI Brands, told the Times in 2006, and predicted that in five years there would be an abundance of rye whiskey hitting the market.
"Abundance" might not be precisely the right word, but there has certainly been a swell. In 2008, Beam released (ri)1 (pronounced "rye one"), an ultra-premium whiskey with a sleek, modernistic bottle and a name like an algebraic formula. Between 2009 and 2011, Beam's rye shipments increased 46 percent.
Buffalo Trace ramped up production, too. "We used to only make rye whiskey one day a year," Kris Comstock told me. "Now we're up to three or four days per year." He admits that doesn't sound like much, but it will eventually amount to a significantly larger volume of rye on the market.
Most of the major bourbon producers now have premium lines of rye whiskey. In 2011, Bulleit introduced its green-labeled rye, and in March, Beam released a 100 proof "patiently aged" rye whiskey in its Knob Creek line. Buffalo Trace, which makes Thomas H. Handy Sazerac rye, just came out with a 100 proof straight rye in its Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. line of whiskeys (the other four are bourbons). "It's a different recipe from our Sazerac rye," Kris Comstock says, noting that while other ryes often include a small portion of corn in their mashbills, this new whiskey's has just rye and barley.
The big boys have been joined by an increasing number of smaller producers. For several years, Templeton Rye (made in Templeton, Iowa) and Tuthilltown Spirits' Hudson Manhattan Rye have slowly been gaining a foothold for craft-distilled whiskeys. Delaware Phoenix of Walton, N.Y., released its first rye to market in 2011, and around the same time Vermont's Whistle Pig introduced its 10 year-old hand-bottled, 100 percent rye whiskey, which has quickly won over high-end fans.
Despite this activity, the intensity of the rye revival surprised distillers and left them scrambling to meet demand. "We didn't see this coming," Fred Noe, Jim Beam's master distiller, told the industry news service Shanken News Daily back in June. "It's going to take us a couple of years to catch up."
Buffalo Trace's Comstock echoes the sentiment. "We can't keep our Sazerac rye in stock," he says. "We didn't make enough years ago."
"In our business you are forecasting for years in advance," he explains, referring to the years it takes to barrel-age whiskey. "Right now we're guessing how much we should make for the year 2020."
It's a tough guess. Is this summer's rye resurgence just a burble of buzz that will subside as quickly as it came on, or does this classic whiskey have the potential to come back for the long term? There's not yet a consensus.
"I don't see it making some sort of huge comeback," Brooks Reitz told me. "It's still going to appeal to a specialized group, people who consider themselves drink aficionados. It still seems to me to be a pretty specialized segment."
Others see it differently. "We're making a bet that the popularity of rye whiskey will continue to increase," Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace says.
Only time will tell for sure, but now is a perfect chance for Southern spirits fans to give the bourbon a rest and sample a high-end rye on the rocks, or, better yet, a classic Sazerac or Old Fashioned. For your next cocktail party, break out the punch bowl and a couple of gallons of rye and mix up a stiff Light Dragoon's Punch. You'll have an excellent drink, and you'll be sipping a little local history, too.