There was a good SF Chronicle article by Gary Regan. Nothing that regular readers of SB.com don't already know, but I enjoyed it.
I thought it to be worthy of posting here in its entirety, but it's too long, so I will split it in two, because I don't know how long it will stay on the sfgate.com site.
America's historic firewater enjoys newfound popularity
Gary Regan, Special to The Chronicle
I have a friend who never pays for a drink. At least not when I'm around. When the bar bill arrives he'll start telling me about the definitive way to fix a certain cocktail in the style of a specific New Orleans restaurant, circa 1897. And he'll keep the yarn spinning just long enough for me to pay the bill. I seldom even realize what went down until a day or two later. Damn! Dave Wondrich did it again, I'll think to myself.
Still, Wondrich, a onetime history professor who is now the drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine, was the man who made me see the light about rye whiskey.
One of the historical truths that Wondrich likes to fling my way is the fact that most whiskey-based cocktails created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries called for rye, not bourbon. We're talking about classics, like the Sazerac, old fashioned and my very favorite drink in the whole darned world, the Manhattan.
Until Wondrich got my attention, I always made Manhattans with bourbon.
Whiskey, in very general terms, is any distilled spirit that's made from grain and aged until it develops a flavor that we recognize as being, well, whiskey. When we define different styles of whiskey, though, we must get a little more specific. Technically, straight rye must be made from 51 percent rye grain; in the case of bourbon, corn must be the predominant grain. In reality, most of these whiskeys exceed that, to about 70 percent of these grains.
After falling out of favor for nearly 70 years, rye's popularity has returned. American distillers have been issuing some incredible new bottlings, such as the 18-year-old Sazerac and the 21-year-old Rittenhouse rye. Without missing a beat, bartenders are getting very creative with this spicy whiskey.
Jimmy Patrick, a bartender at the Lion and Compass in Sunnyvale, created the Rye Tye, a variation on the rum-based mai tai, to introduce his customers to the once and potentially future King of American whiskeys.
Many bartenders, Patrick included, are also using rye in classic drinks so their customers can taste the time-honored cocktails in their original forms. "People are starting to hear the hype about rye, but don't know what to drink it in," Patrick says, so he also encourages his guests to try Manhattans, old fashioneds and Sazeracs made with rye.
Prior to Prohibition, straight rye was said to be even more popular than bourbon. And in the two decades that preceded the great drought, it was whiskey -- not gin, not rum, not Tequila and certainly not vodka -- that was the King of the American Barroom. Rye was a very popular dram indeed.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, American whiskey distilleries fired up their stills, but concentrated their efforts on making bourbon, and more or less ignored rye.
Why no rye? Nobody's telling. It was probably because corn is less expensive than rye. The whiskey men had been out of business for quite some time, remember, and because whiskey isn't worth drinking until it's been aged a minimum of two years in oak, it would be at least that long until the newly made whiskey was deemed salable.
While American distillers were waiting patiently for their bourbon to mellow in charred oak barrels, Canadian rye whisky was being poured in the United States. Its popularity stuck, even though many Canadian whiskies are now made with no rye whatsoever. Until recently, many American bartenders automatically reached for a bottle of the Canadian impostor when their guests ordered rye.
Among whiskeys, Canadian whisky is generally sweet and somewhat generic. It almost always slides down the throat singing some ballad by Robert Goulet, another easily palatable Canadian. Bourbon also has harmonious sweetness from corn, but with a bit of an attitude. You might hear the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, for instance. Or Robert Johnson could make an appearance on a 78-rpm gramophone record, complete with earthy scratches. He's likely singing "Love in Vain."
Straight rye whiskey is more elegant, with subtle spice notes and a flavor that's smooth but not sweet. It leans a little toward opera. Think Enrico Caruso. Rye is elegant in a very masculine sort of way.
Although straight rye whiskey seems to be a new addition to the barroom, a few bottlings have been lurking in the background all along. Relatively small quantities of stalwarts such as Old Overholt (made by Jim Beam) and Rittenhouse and Pikesville (both from Heaven Hill Distilleries in Kentucky) have been long available. And brand names usually associated with bourbon, such as Wild Turkey and Jim Beam, have also had straight ryes on the market for a number of years.
Until a new breed of whiskey connoisseur delved into this style, most ryes were sold to a knowledgeable few, and rye was a rare sight in bars or liquor stores until around a decade ago. Then a series of rye whiskeys began to hit the market, and bars and their tenders took note.
"I have expanded my rye whiskey collection considerably, both out of personal favor and customer interest," says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir, a neighborhood bar in San Francisco's Mission District.
Elixir's list of straight ryes includes Michter's, a relative newcomer available in two bottlings -- a 10-year-old bottling and also in a bottle sans age statement. (No age statement on bottles of any straight American whiskey denotes a minimum age of four years.) Both are highly recommendable. Michter's is made in Kentucky, though it's based on a brand originally from Pennsylvania, once a great source for rye.
In fact, most of these spicy drams are made in Kentucky, except for Old Potrero, which is made from 100 percent malted rye grain in the pot stills at San Francisco's Anchor Distillery. Old Potrero features three bottlings. Two, the "18th century style," and "19th century style," bear no age statements. But the third, Old Potrero Hotaling's Rye Whiskey, so named to honor the A.P. Hotaling & Company's warehouse on Jackson Street, a building filled with whiskey that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, spends a full 11 years in charred oak casks.
Old Potrero is so popular that Greg Lindgren, owner and bartender at Rye, a Geary Street watering hole, ran out of his allotted number of cases shortly after introducing a rye-based cocktail, the Dogpatch, a drink that's named for a neighborhood near the Anchor Distillery. All was not lost. Lindgren went straight to the source. "The folks at Anchor assure us that we will be able to get enough (rye) for the remainder of the year," he said.
The Rittenhouse 100, an old staple out of Kentucky, is also worth seeking out. The 100-proof bottling has gained much favor among rye aficionados. If you're really lucky you might stumble across a bottle of the limited Rittenhouse 21-year-old rye.
Or hunt down Sazerac brand 18-year-old rye, a superb expression of rye whiskey issued by Kentucky's Buffalo Trace distillery. Sazerac also issues a 6-year-old rye that's been a great hit in the barrooms of America. It works neat, it works on the rocks, and it serves as a very sturdy backbone for rye-based cocktails.
Other recommendable well-aged American straight ryes include the Black Maple Hill, available in 18- and 23-year-old expressions, and the Hirsch 21-year-old Kentucky Rye. And there are also a couple of Canadian ryes that contain no neutral spirits, and no added flavorings, so for our purposes, the Hirsch Selection Canadian rye whiskies, currently available in 10- and 12-year-old bottlings, fit the bill nicely.
Finally, there is Van Winkle. In the late 1990s, I found myself in Bardstown, Ky., to attend the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. As I strolled around town with my friend, spirits writer Paul Pacult, we happened upon one Julian Van Winkle, the guy who's responsible for bringing us 13-year-old Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. It's a superb example of a classic rye, though it can be very hard to find at times. Van Winkle told us that he had started to bottle a straight rye whiskey for the Japanese market, but that it wouldn't be available in the good old U.S.A. Pacult and I beat the man to a pulp. And that's why you can now get this delectable whiskey. True story. Aside from the beating part.
I've used this rye successfully as a base for cocktails, but I usually save it for sipping neat or over ice.
I poured a shot of Van Winkle rye for a good friend when he stopped by my house for a late afternoon chinwag recently.
"I love this stuff," he said. "Dave Wondrich bought me a dram of this when I bumped into him last week."
"Wondrich actually paid for it?" I asked.
"Oh, yes. He's very generous at the bar, you know. Unless he thinks you're a scoundrel, that is. You know the Wondrich creed, dontcha? Never buy drinks for rogues and scoundrels. He pretty much lives by that one."
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.