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  1. #1
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    Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    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.

    Jeff

    ==========

    Rye, resurrected
    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.
    "One never knows, do one?" Fats Waller, American Musician, 1904-1943

  2. #2
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    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 2

    Here is the balance of the Regan article.

    Jeff
    =============

    Rye tasting notes

    I chose the following ryes because of their versatility. Whether sipped neat, over ice or in a cocktail, any of these will fill the bill nicely.

    Michter's 10-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey This is one of the most versatile ryes out there. It's nutty, chocolaty, fruity and spicy. If Maker's Mark is the best all-rounder of bourbons, and Highland Park fits the same bill for single-malt Scotches, then Michter's 10-year-old takes the title for the ryes.

    Sazerac 6-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey Perhaps the quintessential cocktail rye, this whiskey has enough bite and punch to shine right through a Sazerac cocktail, but it's intricate and marvelously spicy enough to be a rye that stands tall on its own two feet. Forgive the review-speak but I get oranges, white pepper and violets.

    Rittenhouse 100-Proof Straight Rye Whiskey This is a gutsy bottling. Since there's no age statement on the label, it's a minimum of 4 years old. It jumps out of the glass and gets right in your face. You gotta fight through the spices to get to that incredible buttery mouthfeel, but it's there all the same. A bartender's dream rye.

    Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-year-old Straight Rye Here's a dram that's full of flowers and toffee and spices that never bows down to the vermouth in a Manhattan. It's full of character, and seems to offer something you never noticed before every time you go back to it.

    Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey I have a hard time finding anything wrong with any whiskey that this Kentucky distillery puts on the market, and this is no exception. There's an old-leather quality to this rye that can be found in Wild Turkey bourbon, too, but its rye has that perfumed quality that's hard to find in any other style of whiskey.

    -- Gary Regan

    This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

    2007 Hearst Communications Inc.
    "One never knows, do one?" Fats Waller, American Musician, 1904-1943

  3. #3
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    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    Good comment there about WT rye having a "perfumed" quality that few other ryes have, that is exactly right.

    Gary

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    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    Sometimes, I wonder about some of the retailers I come across in my whiskey travels as well as how they manage to stay in business. Today, I was in an average size urban-area store which has been in business at the same location for at least 25 years under the same ownership. A lady was asking the guy some questions about various kinds of whiskey including the difference between bourbon and scotch. As far as I could tell, he answered her correctly and honestly. Then she asked "What is rye whiskey". He told her and then she asked what kinds he had in stock. I was standing in front of the bourbon section which of course also contained ryes. His response was, "well, we have Jim Beam and a new one from Wild Turkey called Russell's Reserve.......sometimes I have Old Overholt but none at the present time". His next comments were what caught my attention and caused my jaw to fall open. He said, "I don't stock much rye because not much is made any longer......it is mainly a dying breed with only a few survivors left these days.....probably won't be around at all in a few years." After spending a few more moments looking over the section, the lady nodded her head, pulled a bottle of JB Rye from the shelf and headed to the register.

    Since I had found nothing of interest to shake any dollars from my wallet, I just shook my head and walked out the door.
    Last edited by Old Lamplighter; 02-02-2008 at 15:21.

  5. #5
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    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Old Lamplighter View Post
    ...it is mainly a dying breed with only a few survivors left these days.....probably won't be around at all in a few years."...
    Maybe he and his reps don't get out much. This was the prevailing wisdom as recently as three years ago. And if WT, Beam, and HH hadn't thanklessly soldiered on for so many years waiting for tastes to change, he'd be right.

    Roger

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    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    Quote Originally Posted by Rughi View Post
    And if WT, Beam, and HH hadn't thanklessly soldiered on for so many years waiting for tastes to change, he'd be right.

    Roger
    You are absolutely right. Thank goodness they had the fortitude and foresight to continue thru the lean years so we may now enjoy the fruits of their labors.

  7. #7
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    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    The reality is still that the distilleries making rye spend one to three days a year making it, i.e., not much. As I've written elsewhere, there have been a lot of articles written about the rye boom, and sales of it have gone up, but not very much.

  8. #8

    Re: Rye, resurrected: Gary Regan article pt. 1

    By the way, this article is from March 2007 -- almost a year ago -- thus pre-dates some recent ryes happenings: at least one Willett 22 bottling, latter Red Hooks, Rittenhouse 23 (v. 21yo), the broader roll-out of the standard Rittenhouses. Not sure it matters, but...
    Tim

 

 

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