The Return of Rye: A New Old-Fashioned Whiskey
BY: Reuben Westmaas | May 8, 2014
It used to be that if you were drinking American whiskey, you were almost certainly drinking rye. With a bigger bite than its sweeter cousin, bourbon, and a spicy flavor profile that's interesting on its own but also stands up to mixers, rye is probably most often seen in popular cocktails like the manhattan or the sazerac—the latter of which is often called “America's first cocktail.” But politics, changing tastes, and plain old bad luck turned the tide against rye, and it's only been in the past decade or so that this centuries-old classic has entered a new renaissance. But what is driving this revival? For an answer I went to Chicago whiskey bar Delilah’s, where I spoke to owner Mike Miller (not to be confused with the Duke of Perth's Mike Miller, interviewed here). Our conversation centered on the decline and triumphant return of this quintessentially American spirit. And he should know a thing or two. Of the 666 bottles that line his walls, 62 of them are rye, and that number is constantly growing. And then there’s this to consider: the specially bottled Delilah’s 15-year rye, which Miller and some craft-distillery buddies made to celebrate the bar’s 15th anniversary, was named the best rye whiskey in the world by Whisky Magazine in 2009. And it can only be found within these punk-rock-postered walls. Read on to learn Miller’s take on the history of rye whiskey, and find out why, sometimes, “a glass is the best mixer.” A Tradition Lost … “Rye used to be the country's most produced whiskey, and then Prohibition brought it down. I don't know the exact numbers, but we had hundreds of distilleries and then after Prohibition it was down to about 20. So it decimated the industry. We look back at Prohibition as just this thing that happened, but you know—what have you done with the past 15 years of your life? Personally, I've done a lot of partying. But for 15 years, you were not allowed to party. So think of the impact to society in general, how you were a criminal if you wanted to make whiskey. So not only did the whiskey stop being made except for a handful of distillers, but I would imagine it meant tearing out of infrastructure. It wasn’t just that places were sitting and gathering dust. How many distilleries were just melted down, how many jobs were lost that never came back?” … And Found “The reason for the return of rye is twofold. Maybe it's threefold. For us, rye’s probably the fastest growing category in the last five years. Not the [category with the] most number of bottles, because that would be scotch—there's just so much scotch. [But] there is probably more new rye than there is new anything else over the past five years. You can't hang the growth of rye on the cocktail scene. People were developing interest in rye for lots of reasons, but they were also growing interest in scotch, and in bourbon as well. The popularity of rye can't just be driven by cocktails. Because most of these on my shelf are not for cocktails. Maybe a quarter of them are made for cocktails, the newer stuff and some of the existing things. But no one's making cocktails out of Van Winkle 13-year rye. That's sippin' rye. Rye's cool, too, you know what I mean? It's rye. It's a double entendre. It seems like Bogey would've drunk rye, even though he drank bourbon in Casablanca. But overall, I think it's disproportional growth based on how few there were.” A Little Less Structure, A Lot More Flavor “The newer, craft distillate ryes, they have a lot of flavor. It's a combination of being relatively young, aged primarily in smaller barrels, and not having other grains to play a factor—[that] makes them unique unto themselves. They can't be like other rye [made by large distilleries]. There's not going to be a sweetness because there's no corn. They're going to have a different body because there's no malt. It's always going to be lighter. If we take a craft distillate, single-source rye, and we taste it next to a classic rye, or next to a single malt, the single malt is just going to have a lot more structure. These craft ryes have a lot of flavor, not a lot of structure.” It’s a Favorite of Mixologists … “It's not that the mixology crowd is discovering rye as a mixer, it's that they're looking at the old books and seeing rye has always been a primary mixer, and it was a primary mixer because it was a primary product. There was way more rye than bourbon. There was way less vodka. Rye was the dominant spirit. Most whiskey cocktails were made with rye before Prohibition, but the cocktail culture of the past fell out of favor. When it came back, what people found was there really just wasn't a lot of rye being made.” … But You Don't Have to Mix It “I mean, we make some nice cocktails here, but I think a glass is the best mixer. For me anyway, and I'm the target customer. These whiskeys are here because I'm into sampling. It's fine to add a little water, drop in a cube, that's not adding new flavors to it. That's not really my issue so much. I just feel that, when it comes to me, the distiller's made a product, he's made the cocktail. All I have to do is put it in a glass and I'm good. I think some things are ingredients and some things are meant to be consumed the way they are. You want to make a cocktail, I'm all for it, as long as you're having fun, having a good time. We make a nice manhattan…but if you want a cocktail that's got 14 ingredients, well, go someplace else.” If You Like One American Whiskey, Try Another “I think how distillers come up with their recipes, how they make their whiskey, what kind of still they're using, what the warehouse is like—each plays a factor. But I say, if you like bourbon, you functionally like all bourbon. If you like rye, you functionally like all rye. If you like scotch, that does not mean you like all scotch. Because the flavor variables in scotch are so much greater than the flavor variables in American whiskey. Like these two couldn't be more different, but they both appeal to me. In this one, the Rittenhouse 100 proof, it's as close to bourbon as rye is going to get. It's still got a big chunk of rye in it, but because the middle is all corn, it's still in the family of bourbon. This one, Cody Road [made with 100% rye –Ed.], is more like a step-cousin.” RECOMMENDATIONS For the bourbon drinkers: “If they're bourbon drinkers just getting into rye, I'd probably take them to the Rittenhouse. All bourbon drinkers are going to like that rye, especially if they like bourbon made with rye. If they like Buffalo Trace, absolutely. If they're Maker's drinkers, maybe not so much. It's not that they won't like it, it just probably won't be to their flavor profile.” For the scotch lovers: “If they're Lagavulin drinkers, they're going to want something older, and very bold. Because if you're drinking Lagavulin, bold is your number. So maybe you go weird deep cuts. Like Rittenhouse 23 year, or something else that's really over the top. Super bold, and you can tell by the nose that's going to taste really good. If you're more of a Caol Ila drinker, I might recommend this Van Winkle.” For a good time no matter what you like: “If somebody comes in and they've never had rye before, and they want to try something unique, then maybe I'm pulling out the Willett four-year rye. It also seems like it's a bit of a bartender favorite around town. I think maybe because it works well in a cocktail—probably a pretty expensive cocktail—but it's also a sipping rye. It's clearly rye forward, but it also doesn't have as much corn. It's fun because it's a little more off-the-grid with the Willett stuff. It's good stuff. Then, there's this, which I think is the best bottling of rye available in the world in the last 20 years—besides my own. The white wax Vintage 21-year rye, for me, would be the rye I would search for the most. If it was like desert island, it would be the 21 Vintage rye. If I wanted to take somebody into something that I know they would like, that is complex but not so expensive, I would go with the Willet. It's very rye forward and you can know right away if you like rye. But if it's a desert island situation, and the zombies are coming, I'm going to grab Vintage 21.” Photos by Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon THIRSTY FOR MORE?
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