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Rye Whiskey: Revolution in a Glass
Rye whiskey pours its dry, spicy flavor notes into drinks on cocktail lists around the world. Impress your bartender with a few of Groupon’s facts on this storied beverage.
Before the Revolutionary War, American colonists would toast the health of the king with glasses of rum. Afterward, it wasn’t just the toast that changed—the drink did, too. As Caribbean molasses became scarce, booze makers turned to their own resources to make alcohol, chiefly using corn and rye. Among the pack was famous lumberjack George Washington, who, as owner of one of the nation’s largest rye distilleries, cleaved to a rye-whiskey recipe that wouldn’t be out of place today: 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% malted barley.
Rye imparts to the drink its bitter, peppery flavor, whereas corn gives it sweetness, and barley converts starches to sugars in order to drive fermentation. The zest of the grain (think of rye bread versus wheat bread) makes it a good match for classic cocktails such as the old fashioned, the manhattan, and the sazerac—they’ll stay balanced and somewhat dry even when mixed with strong flavors such as sugar and bitters. Modern requirements for rye dictate that it must contain at least 51% rye grain, be aged in charred, new oak barrels, and have an alcohol content of no more than 160 proof.
Rye remained a bar staple until Prohibition. After the law was repealed, rye distilleries started making corn-dominated bourbon because corn was easier to grow, made better Thanksgiving decorations, and provided the sweeter taste that was in vogue. During Prohibition, Americans had also developed a competing taste for gin—the bootlegger’s booze of choice because it was so simple to make. But in recent years, rye whiskey has made a comeback. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, rye sales have risen by more than 20% annually over the past few years, perhaps driven by a resurgence in cocktail-making culture and the popularity of shows such as Mad Men that celebrate a bracing drink.