Thursday, September 4, 2008

A rye primer.

Some readers of this blog want to learn more about rye. They've not yet enjoyed its many pleasures. Since things have been awful serious around these parts this week, here goes.

What is rye whiskey? Rye is an American-style whiskey that is made--according to federal regulations--with at least 51% rye grain in the mash. That means that the resulting distillate might include ingredients such as wheat, corn, barley, or other grains. Barley is the most common supplement, but adjusting the proportions or number of other grains (or increasing the amount of rye) offers an infinite number of possibilities for distinct kinds of rye whiskey.

Rye is different than bourbon, another, more readily-available American-style whiskey. Federal law requires that any whiskey bearing that name be made of at least 51% corn. Just as with rye, there are an infinite number of ways to distill bourbon, as makers use different amounts of barley, wheat, or rye to transform the taste of the final product.

Bourbon offers the drinker buttery smoothness, while rye whiskey hits the palate with dry, spicy notes. Rye was replaced by bourbon in many classic drinks as rye's popularity plummeted in the years after Prohibition. That said, there are bourbons that have larger amounts of rye than most, notably: Basil Hayden, Four Roses, Bullet, and Old Granddad. If a bar doesn't have American rye whiskey, these are good options for something more interesting than your standard bourbon.

That brings up another important point. In some circles, Canadian whiskys are referred to as "rye" (note, too, the different spelling of the word "whisky"). This historical reference is derived from the high rye contents of some Canadian whiskys made (and illegally imported) for American drinkers during Prohibition. The rye content in today's Canadian whiskys usually cannot be verified, since Canada's distilling laws do not require whisky's marked as rye to be made of at least 51% rye.

Generally, Canadian whisky makers use a wide variety of grains and create especially smooth liquors. The only Canadian whiskys known to be similar to American ryes are Wiser's Very Old (18 year) Whisky and Alberta Premium Rye Whisky (made from a 100% rye mash).

This means that when you ask for rye at a bar, be sure to specify: "American rye."

The recent spike in interest in rye has created a number of boutique labels, as well as local and regional versions of the long-overlooked liquor. More on those later.

First, you need to find out if you like rye. Don't spend too much. If you go to the largest and best liquor store in your area, you'll likely find either Old Overholt Rye Whiskey or Jim Beam Rye Whiskey. In some locations, there might also be Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey.

Start with the Old Overholt. It has a long and cherished history. Abraham Overholt began distilling rye in the 1810s in Western Pennsylvania, under the label Old Farm. Sometime in the 1870s, the brand was transformed to Old Overholt. Jim Beam now owns the label. The whiskey itself is aged for 4 years and is bottled at 80 proof (meaning it is 40% alcohol by volume). When you drink Old Overholt, you are drinking American whiskey history.

For this reason it is preferred to either the Jim Beam or Wild Turkey ryes for the first-timer. Furthermore, it is the best tasting and often the cheapest rye ($12-$20, depending on the state) on the liquor store shelf. Feel free to drink it neat, on the rocks, with water, or in place of bourbon in your favorite whiskey cocktail.

And when you settle in with your first glass, remember that George Washington distilled rye at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson distilled rye at Monticello. You are in good company.

Next up: the classic rye whiskey cocktails


SwampApe said...

So what about the Sazerac? Or are you lumping that with the "boutique" labels?

And bravo for finding time to write this history while the Republicans and their minions destroy your hometown.

A rye-drinker said...

It is one of the "boutique" labels. No way to escape that. Only recently has it become widely available. And just five years ago, the best liquor stores in the upper Midwest still only carried Old Overholt, Jim Beam, and Wild Turkey.

SwampApe said...

Best liquor stores in the upper midwest?

Is that like being the best ballet dancer in Amarillo?

DrDaRyL said...

There's a throw-down challenge. Wilbur's v. the upper midwest. But Wilbur's needs a better website that includes liquors, not just wine, so those of us behind the Zion Curtain can access that good rye without mail ordering from Illinois and New Jersey...

A rye-drinker said...

Wilbur's is good--don't get me wrong. It's easily the best liquor store I've seen in the Mountain West. But Riley's in Madison? Discount Liquor in Milwaukee? John's Grocery in Iowa City? Surdyk's or Zipps in Minneapolis? Binny's or Sam's in Chicago?

Those are some fine liquor stores.

DrDaRyL said...

Perhaps we should settle this with a ROAD TRIP TOUR. We can get a bus (The Straight Rye Express) and chat with reporters informally as we roll down the highway in search of every liquor superstore and bodega between The Fort and..."Warshington." Like McCain, I'm all about serving my fellow citizens...a good stiff drink.

A rye-drinker said...

Dr. Daryl, I like the way you think.