Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Classic Rye Cocktails, #13: The Blinker

A new (classic) drink for a new year.

This one was revived in the early 2000s by Ted Haigh in his famous Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails (2004), now newly revised and reissued (2009). Originally featured in Patrick Duffy's The Official Mixer's Manual (1934), the drink takes advantage of a dry, tart citrus taste and the rich sweetness of a fruit-based syrup, all balanced by the spicy rye. It's origins are otherwise murky, but one can guess it emerged either toward the end of Prohibition or with the first bloom of joy that met Prohibition's repeal.

The other crucial thing about this drink is its simplicity. Rye, something dry (grapefruit juice), and something sweet (grenadine, like the original--or, even better, a homemade or store-bought raspberry syrup). Simple proportions, simple ingredients. No sugared rims, no obscure ingredients, no bartender contortions. And yet one taste suggests real complexity. In many ways, this drink embodies the genius of American cocktail culture. A little really does add up to a lot.

When one considers the ingredients--rye, grapefruit juice, and grenadine (or raspberry syrup), it seems too much. Too sweet. Too juvenile. Not patriotic. But instead, it's clean, fresh, and bracing--just like the January air here in the Upper Midwest. Because it's winter time, I strongly encourage you to take advantage of fresh grapefruit juice here. You won't be sorry.

2 0z rye whiskey (Old Overholt or other 80-proof rye preferred)
1 oz grapefruit juice (fresh-squeezed preferred, store bought not-from-concentrate works fine)
2 dashes of grenadine or, 1.5 teaspoons of raspberry syrup (try Smuckers if you're fresh out of raspberries and sugar)

Mix ingredients in a shaker, add ice, shake, strain into small martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist (though this is completely optional with this drink).

Even people who don't care for grapefruit juice will like this one.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Tasting Notes #4: Rittenhouse, Bottled in Bond, 100-proof

Already one of my favorite whiskeys (and one that's getting harder to find every month), I decided to put Rittenhouse to the test. Unlike the lesser, 80-proof version or the newly released 21-year old premium version, this economical 100-proof rye spirit has kept cocktail and whiskey enthusiasts excited for years. The high-proof stuff works especially well in a variety of pre-Prohibition cocktails, which often drew on bonded whiskeys because of their assured higher quality (Old Granddad 100-proof bonded bourbon, for instance, offers a similar timeless quality in that category).

Rittenhouse is an old Pennsylvania label that emerged after Prohibition ended in 1933. Now, like almost all American rye whiskey's, it's made in Kentucky (by Heaven Hill). It came to the attention of many in the spirits world when it won the "North American Whiskey of the Year" prize at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It's been hard to find ever since, largely because it's usually less than $20 a bottle, and in a few corners of this great country, sometimes found for less than $15 a bottle (I'm talking about you, Boise, ID).

The thing I like best about this whiskey is that it not only livens up the best cocktails, but also serves as a entry-level sipping whiskey. While it can't compete with high-end ryes, it certainly offers rye lovers a pleasant drinking experience neat, with just a little water, or even with ice.

Appearance: At the first swirl of the glass, one sees uneven beading--some of the legs are thin and fast, while other seem thick, slowly moving down the sides of the glass, if at all. The color is dark, from the center all the way to the edge.

Smell: A not-unpleasant charcoal overtone mixed with an astringent note that is decidedly thick.

Taste: Sweetness to start, a big, wide taste that lingers. Vanilla grows out of the sweetness and then black pepper pops out. A little ginger-like burn follows the pepper, especially on the back of the tongue, slowly fading out. Thoroughly complex and delightful.

Finish: Sharp, but not brittle.

Overall, this is an excellent whiskey and an even more excellent value. Even if the price for this spirit has recently gone up in your area, it's a must-have. When you find some at your local liquor store, stock up. It may be gone the next time you need a bottle. And by then, you won't be able to live without it.

The flexibility it provides--perfect for heavyweight rye drinks such as the Whiskey Smash or the Suburban, but suitable for sipping neat--makes it especially useful for the value-conscious rye drinker in these difficult economic times. No wonder it's the darling of cocktail aficionados and rye drinkers alike. Simply put, Rittenhouse 100-proof bonded rye is an especially democratic spirit.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tasting Notes #3: High West Rendezvous Rye

The third in an occasional series.

Utah and whiskey are two words that do not seem to fit together. After all, as a 150-year old outpost of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (better known as the Mormons), the state holds a powerful reputation for being dry.

Yet in the nineteenth century, many Mormons enjoyed wine and beer and Salt Lake City sported a number of liquor purveyors. Not until church authorities began emphasizing what the faithful call "The Word of Wisdom" in the early 1900s did Utah-made distillates become a thing of the past.

In the twenty-first century, homemade alcohol returned to Utah. In the 1980s and 1990s, brewpubs made a triumphant return in Salt Lake City, Park City, and Moab. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a few scattered vineyards and High West Distilling popped up, taking advantage of the statewide trend toward craft brewing, craft fermenting, and craft distilling.

High West, however, has yet to sell any of their own product. The first production runs of rye whiskey produced in their Utah-based still remain in the barrel. Nonetheless, they wisely decided to build up their market share by connecting a product (procured from other distillers, likely in Kentucky) with their label on it to the long history of rye whiskey consumption in the West.

The name of this rye--rendezvous--is meant to conjure up the supposedly halycon days of the 1820s to 1840s, when American fur trappers wintered in the Rocky Mountains and gathered once a year to sell their pelts to various companies (which in turn transported them to major cities for processing) and gather supplies for the coming year. Most often held in Utah's Cache Valley or along the Green River in what is now southwestern Wyoming, these meetings often turned into raucous, even violent, frolics fueled by cheap whiskey.

Thankfully, this spirit is neither cheap nor frolic-inducing. In fact, it took home a double gold medal in the 2008 San Francisco Spirits Competition.

A mixture of two different whiskeys--a six year old straight rye and a sixteen year old straight rye, mixed with Utah water to bring the concoction to 92 proof--produces a distinct sipping experience. Again, High West did not distill either spirit, instead purchasing from existing stocks while they built their distillery in Park City. Salting away their current distillates for future sales, in the meantime they offer us this unique blended American rye.

Here's how it tastes:

Appearance: The dark, heavy, viscous body of this substantial whiskey becomes clear the second you hold your glass up to any light.

Smell: The first aroma contains mint and licorice, and if you linger over the glass, one feels a cooling sensation through the nose.

Taste: Thin on the front, with a sharp and peppery palate. The whiskey grows much more complex after a few seconds on the tongue, and finishes sweet, with notes of caramel.

Finish: Some burn, with a little bitterness that is actually quite pleasant.

Overall, this is a whiskey worth enjoying straight or on the rocks. It stands out as one of the more distinctive blended ryes on the market. But unless one is independently wealthy, I'd avoid using it in cocktails, where it's distinctiveness will wash out in the face of other flavorful ingredients. And if you don't live in Utah, you can find it at a number of major online retailers.

In the meantime, rye patriots will anxiously await the Utah-made version, coming soon.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Classic Rye Cocktails, #12: The Scofflaw

If, like me, you've been drinking whiskey smashes all summer, you may be wondering what the arrival of autumn portends. Across much of the northern United States, backyard mint plants will not provide their copious bounty during the long, cold, winter.

It's time for another drink. One that reminds the rye patriot of summer, but looks forward to changing leaves and the fresh, crisp air of fall.

That drink is the Scofflaw. The cocktail renaissance has brought this drink back in a big way. Ironically, it belongs to the temperance movement. That's right. Anti-saloon forces gave birth to this drink back in the early 1920s. Apparently, it wasn't enough to outlaw the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquors. Temperance leaders, seeing that the consumption of alcohol continued unabated--in some quarters, at least--decided that drinkers needed to be defined more sharply as lawbreakers.

In late 1923, a leading prohibitionist announced a contest to create, according to the January 16, 1924 New York Times, "the best word to stigmatize those who scoff at the prohibition law." The requirements? The new word need to start start with an "s," be no more than two syllables, focus on the lawbreaker--not the drinking, apply to all those who broke the law, and finally, fulfill Warren G. Harding's sentiment that "lawless drinking is a menace to the Republic itself." The winner? Kate L. Butler's (of Dorchester, MA) suggestion of "scofflaw." She won $200 for her trouble.

Alone among Americans, the "wets" had a sense of humor. And they proved it by immediately coming up with this concoction. Thanks to the efforts of rye-drinking expats at Harry's Bar in Paris, within three days, this term for an illegal drinker soon became a moniker for a tasty cocktail.

This one balances sweet, sour, and spicy sharpness. It's a winner.

1 oz rye whiskey (100 proof Rittenhouse works best)
1 oz dry vermouth
3/4 oz grenadine (Stirring's brand preferred) or, alternately, green Chartreuse
3/4 oz lemon juice
2-3 dashes orange bitters

For the sake of historical accuracy, it's important to note that the original recipe called for grenadine instead of green Chartreuse, but Washington Post spirits columnists Jason Wilson adeptly suggests the replacement. One likes to think that in the absence of good whiskey (the stocks of rye in Paris surely must have been depleted four years after passage of the Volstead Act), the turn to grenadine by our Prohibition-era foremothers and forefathers was one of necessity, not joy. Nonetheless, if you're in the mood for something sweeter, be my guest.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Historic craft distilling...

Readers of this blog may remember that there was much celebration surrounding the announcement that the stills at Mount Vernon--where George Washington became one of the largest rye whiskey makers of his time in the late 1790s--were not only reconstructed but also producing distillates again.

Well, it turns out that when they fired up the still back in February 2009, the good people at Mount Vernon created a blog to chronicle the event. It's a fascinating look at the reclamation of a historic rye recipe and distilling process. Check it out.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not just craft distilling, but home distilling...

Here's an article (brand new) on an important variant of craft distilling.