I thought it appropriate to take a break from our weekly march through the classic rye cocktails (my plans are to share ten in all) and to instead survey the rye whiskey landscape as it exists in late 2008.
The short version: unless you live in Alaska, Maine, Hawaii, or one of the E.U. nations, things are looking good.
There are a number of premium rye whiskeys out there. The best liquor store in your area will have a bunch, no doubt. The craze for rye has motivated corporate distilleries to invest in the "good stuff" all over again. Buying up old labels and creating new ones, they've created a cornucopia of choices. Some are overpriced. Others should be held dear.We'll talk more about them in a few weeks.
But since you've developed a taste for rye --preferably with the readily available Old Overholt--take a moment to imagine the fine brown liquor through the lens of localism. Localism is the term that loosely describes various efforts to return our consumption patterns and relationships (social, economic, political, ecological) to the local level. In these heady days of high energy prices and financial crisis, we should look to our local suppliers and lay in a large supply.
Local whiskey has a long history. Indeed, all whiskey was once local. When Washington distilled rye at Mount Vernon, he sold it locally. Pennsylvania farmers sold rye made from their native grains to their companions and friends throughout the Ohio River valley. Home distillers--regardless of whether or not they had oak barrels for aging--long used whatever grain they could get their hands on to make innumerable whiskey variants. Ever since the end of Prohibition (which legalized, but also renewed tight regulation of the liquor industry), home distilling has been illegal and whiskey production has been centered in Kentucky (yes, even for ryes). Thankfully, no longer do we need to speak only of history when it comes to locally-sourced rye.
Let's start on the West Coast. Given his ability to invent trends, it comes as no surprise that Fritz Maytag (founder of Anchor Steam brewery) invented the regionally-available rye. Interested in fulfilling a long-held interest, Maytag opened a distillery in 1993. He was among the first to focus on rye. His Old Potrero (and its variants) provided the first outpost outside of traditional whiskey country. Made from a 100% rye mash, it comes in either an 18th century or 19th century version. The former ages briefly in toasted oak barrels. The latter ages in charred oak barrels. It's expensive stuff, but well worth it. This regional offering can now be found in limited quantities around the country. If you have a chance, the 18th century version should be tried, no matter the price. To drink a rye the way our foremothers and forefathers did is something every patriot should experience.
Meantime, if you're in the Mountain West, look for a new arrival: Rendezvous Rye. Rendezvous comes from High West Distillery in Park City, Utah. They own the first still to operate legally in that state since Prohibition. Right now, while they wait for their own stuff to age, they are selling a blend of two different Kentucky-made ryes. But hope springs eternal. Rye lovers across the region are waiting to see what this western rye has to offer afficiandos and greenhorns alike. I hope to try some for the first time later this month while visiting Salt Lake City.
Here in the middle of the country, we are lucky to have one of the best ryes in the world. Templeton Rye comes straight from the heart of the Midwest. Born from legendary roots, this whiskey offers a perfect balance of flavors. Though only aged for four years, it stands tall next to whiskeys three to four times the price.
Templeton, Iowa, west of Des Moines, was an important source for bootleg liquor during the 1920s and 1930s. Much of it found its way east to Chicago, fueling mob wars and all-night parties. These German Catholic farmers faithfully buried barrels of whiskey derived from rye they grew on their own land so that it might mellow with time. The modern version uses one of the old farmers' recipes. The best part about it is that it remains western Iowa's pride and joy, employing local farmers and using rye grown in Minnesota. Right now it is only available in Iowa and in the Chicago area, but the owner of the distillery assures me that Minnesota is the next stop for distribution of this excellent spirit.
Lest you all of you in the East despair, fear not. Tuthilltown Distilling, in the Hudson River Valley, has been distilling fine spirits of many and different sorts for years. Hudson Manhattan Rye is their effort to capture democracy in a bottle. Made from a 100% rye mash and bottled at 92 proof, this liquor can be found in good liquor stores all across New York State.
If you're a Southerner, no sweat. Make a trip to George Washington's Mount Vernon and purchase a soon-to-be-available bottle of the rye whiskey made right on the premises in the newly reconstructed distillery. It doesn't hurt that there's a new museum there too, with an exhibit titled: "“Spirits of Independence: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry.” Surely this monument to the faithful patriots of yesteryear will become the Mecca of rye.
So remember, take advantage of the rebirth of rye whiskey. Drink locally, if you can.