Return of the rye

Return of the rye

The bad guy's whiskey is set to leap off the history shelves and stage a magnificent revival. Scott Aiges makes an irresistable case for procurring some bottles.

Production | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Scott Aiges

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With the snifter held aloft, the liquid inside displays a deep amber colour, the result of years spent in a barrel of charred oak. But with one whiff, it is obvious that this whiskey is like no other. What is it? A 10-year-old bourbon may give off a buttery sweetness, a 16-year-old Islay malt a husky smokiness. But the mystery dram offers a tangy, biting scent with hints of peppermint and orange peel. Is it an armagnac? A Portuguese aguardente velha? Then there’s the taste. Compared to the oaky vanilla of bourbon or earthy peat of Scotch, this fruity brew yields a surprising, invigorating mix of hazelnut, pepper, rosemary and peaches. It lingers on the palate, finishing smoothly but with assertiveness, until its tart essence rebounds and lodges in the brain. This is a flavour to remember. It will be hard to forget. But what is it? Like bourbon, it’s usually distilled from a mash of corn, barley and rye and aged in new charred oak. Like an Islay malt, it is bold and feisty. It is a proud whiskey with a distinguished history. But it has fallen so far out of favour that it is difficult to find on the shelves of bars and liquor stores. The average drinker may never even have tasted it and probably would fail this quiz. The answer is: straight rye whiskey. Ah, yes. Rye whiskey. Celebrated in song and legend, but rarely tasted these days. Just saying the words “rye whiskey” conjures images from history; musket-carrying settlers in colonial America, rough-riding cowboys in the Wild West, Chicago gangsters in the era of Al Capone. The name evokes history because for all practical purposes, rye is history. It was once the predominant tipple in the US, but it has virtually disappeared. Fortunately for fans of whiskey with character and distinction, rye may be on the threshold of a comeback thanks to the efforts of a few hardy entrepreneurs. This is especially welcome not only because rye is a wonderful drink full of spice and surprises, but because it has a story every bit as interesting as its flavours. Rye was the first American whiskey. For more than a century it was by far the most popular spirit in the land. It was originally distilled in the early 1700s by German, Dutch, Scottish and Irish immigrants in the Pennsylvania territory and by the late 18th century was produced abundantly throughout the mid-Atlantic region. George Washington was known, among other things, for making rye on a large scale. By 1791, the rye industry had grown so much that the young federal government imposed a whiskey tax to raise funds. But when the tax collectors approached the farms of rye distillers in western Pennsylvania they were greeted with tar and feathers. The farmers raised a militia of 7,000 men and began marching on government garrisons, demanding independence for the western states. Their whiskey rebellion threatened to tear apart the fledgling republic until 1794, when President Washington – who must have been torn between his need to assert federal authority and his sympathy for fellow distillers – sent in a force larger than the one he had commanded in the Revolutionary War to subdue the rebels. Although the skirmish ended with only a handful of casualties, some of the defeated distillers headed for Kentucky and Tennessee, where corn was plentiful and became the dominant grain, and the bourbon industry was born. But that’s another story. Others continued making rye in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia well into the 20th century. Rye was the whiskey that settled the West. It was the preferred drink of detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s novels (see Whisky Magazine, Issue 4). In most of the country, if you ordered whiskey, rye was what you were served. But Prohibition changed all that. Stocks of rye whiskey were depleted or destroyed during those years, and what the noble experiment did not kill, changing fashions nearly did. The post-Prohibition American market was flooded with Scotch and Irish imports. By the end of World War Two rye had been eclipsed and bourbon took hold. Even such classic rye cocktails as the Manhattan and the New Orleans’ Sazerac lost their edge. If you have been served either one in the past 20 years, the chances are it was made with bourbon or a Canadian blend. Today rye is barely hanging on to a minuscule market. The 65 rye distilleries of Pennsylvania and Maryland are all gone. Only a handful of companies continue to make rye, and those are nearly all Kentucky distillers who make bourbon for 200 days a year and rye for three or four. Jim Beam’s flavourful yellow-labelled straight rye whiskey and its other brand, Old Overholt, which has a subtle oiliness on the palate, are two of the only ryes commonly found on liquor store shelves. The third is Wild Turkey’s dark, densely flavoured 101 proof rye. The Heaven Hill distillery produces three worthy ryes labelled Rittenhouse, Stephen Foster and Pikesville, but outside of select regions, such as Maryland and Wisconsin, these brands are difficult to find. A few distilleries, such as Brown-Formans Early Times, make and mature significant amounts of straight rye, but all of that whiskey is sent to Canada for use in blends. Ironically, Canadian blends are often mistakenly referred to as rye, but their overall rye content is usually less than 10 per cent which is less than the percentage of rye grain in the mash bill of most bourbons. The good news is that three new players are helping to restore interest in straight rye whiskey. Fritz Maytag is making the first whiskey in generations to be made from 100 per cent rye grain. Julian Van Winkle is a third-generation whiskey man who stumbled upon the delights of rye because of interest from overseas. The third is a venerable distillery which is launching a rye whisky this spring. Together, they are helping to bring rye back from the brink of extinction.Old Potrero
Fritz Maytag is no stranger to success or innovation. His great-grandfather started the Maytag Appliance Company, and his father created the popular cheese called Maytag Blue. In 1965, Fritz set out to make his own mark. He bought an old brewery on Potrero Hill in San Francisco and started making beers that were dark and full-bodied. His Anchor line of beers were radically different from the light, mass-produced lagers that dominated the American landscape. Anchor not only caught on, it spawned a generation of imitators. Maytag single-handedly sparked the advent of microbreweries and created the American market for speciality premium beers. Thirty years later he turned his eye towards distilling, but not just any spirit. He wanted to make whiskey the way George Washington would have made it. And that meant rye. “I had this dream of making rye whiskey because I knew it was the original American whiskey, and I knew it was out of favour,” he explained. “I love stuff that’s out of favour. Every five years or so I would have an Old Overholt on the rocks, and I couldn’t wait, because I thought maybe now I’ve grown up enough to enjoy it. But I never really enjoyed it. I liked the idea of rye whiskey, but I’d never had one that I liked.”He figured he could do better. So he set up a small still in the corner of his brewery and began, by trial and error, figuring out how to make
rye whiskey. The first innovation was to use a custom-made copper pot still. Nearly all American distilleries use the continuous column still. Maytag’s copper pot was a return to European tradition. His second clever idea was to use a mash of 100 per cent malted rye grain. Whiskey has not been made that way in the US for more than 100 years because most rye makers merely altered the balance of their bourbon mash bills, at least 51 per cent corn for bourbon and 51 per cent rye grain for straight rye. But on the American eastern seaboard in the 1780s, rye was abundant while corn and barley were not, so whiskey made from all malted rye would have been common. Maytag aged his brew for three years in new charred oak barrels. The result was a single malt straight rye whiskey that displays a colour of burnished gold, a nose of butterscotch and leather, and a delightfully complex palate that combines notes of peppermint, walnuts and sugar cane. Bottled at cask strength (62.6 per cent alcohol, or 125.2 proof), it has a mild and even finish when a drop of water is added. Maytag suggests sipping it over one or two ice cubes, so that the whiskey is diluted progressively as the ice melts. His quest for authenticity led him to try another single malt that cannot technically be called rye whiskey because it is stored for only one year in barrels that are not charred. Besides specifying the minimum content of the dominant grain, laws adopted following Prohibition dictate that rye and bourbon be aged for at least three years in virgin charred oak barrels. There is not a chance in hell that George Washington would have made whiskey in a charred barrel as charring was not introduced until later, Maytag insists. Nor would Washington have aged his whiskey for years, since in those days barrels were used mostly for transport and short-term storage. Maytag’s creation, labelled simply, Single Malt Whiskey, is young but delicious. Its colour is predictably light, akin to a heavy Chardonnay or Pouilly Fumé. The nose is even sweeter than that of its older, charred cousin, while the flavour is tangy and bright with hints of orange peel, green tea, moss and toasted almond. With a dash of water, this 123.5 proof malt has a light finish that leaves a lingering taste of straw. For now, the old on the Old Potrero label is strictly ironic. But Maytag is storing some of his rye malt in used bourbon barrels as though it were a single malt Scotch. In due course he will release whiskeys that have been aged six years and longer. “What I really want is to make an authentic whiskey the way it would have been made in the 18th century, from rye,” he declares. “I was thrilled to discover that an all malt rye whiskey made in a true pot-still style can be a delicious thing to drink even at a young age. I thought it was an absolutely weird circumstance that whiskey-making in America had become so removed from the original techniques. Frankly, I saw a fantastic opportunity to be the first. We went down in history. We made the first pot-distilled whiskey in modern times in America. We didn’t make very much, but by God we did it.”Van Winkle
While Maytag’s whiskey shines in spite of, or perhaps because of, its youth, Julian Van Winkle seeks out whiskeys of a pronounced maturity. This is fitting for a man carrying on a 65-year-old family business. In 1935, Van Winkle’s grandfather revived the Stitzel Weller distillery in Louisville, which had closed during Prohibition. The plant stayed in the family until Van Winkle’s father sold it in 1972. As part of the sale, the Van Winkles kept rights to the Van Winkle brand name and a large stock of whiskey to bottle. Since joining his father in the company in 1977, Julian Van Winkle has concentrated on selling the bourbons inherited from Stitzel Weller stocks and acquiring quality whiskeys from other producers. He bottles his line of bourbons at ages ranging from 10 to 20 years. Totally by accident is how Van Winkle responds when asked how rye whiskey joined his line of products. His grandfather stopped producing rye in the 1940s, and Julian Van Winkle had never tasted rye in his life. Then fate and commerce crossed paths. “I have some Japanese customers, and they’re very fond of older whiskeys,” explains the man who has the bushy moustache and wily drawl of a native Kentuckian. “I’d been selling my older bourbons over there for several years. I had a request from a Japanese customer for some older rye whiskey. I had put a bee in their bonnet years ago because there were some reserves from the Michters Distillery (in Pennsylvania) of rye whiskey that was available. At that time it was 16 years old, and this was years ago. But the sale didn’t take place. “Then, six years later, the Japanese customer renewed his request for aged rye. But by then the Michters product was unavailable. So I started asking around different distilleries. I knew a couple of people who stored whiskey for other distilleries in their warehouses. And I found this rye whiskey. I tried it, tasted it, and it was just phenomenal. So I developed two labels – Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye for the 12-year-old, and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye for the 13-year-old.”He did not intend to sell it in the US, but in 1997 at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Van Winkle showed the export-only product to a couple of whiskey writers who convinced him to release the rye at home. Van Winkle prefers not to divulge his source, but the whiskey was made at the Medley distillery in Owensboro, Kentucky. With a mash bill of 51 per cent rye, 38 per cent corn and 11 per cent barley, the 12- and 13-year-olds have much in common. But they also have distinct personalities. The 12-year-old, bottled at 45 per cent alcohol, has a deep golden colour and a fruity nose of orange and plum. The fruit turns to peppery spice on the palate. The finish is mellow and soft. The extra year in the barrel adds a surprising degree of sweetness to the 13-year-old, bottled at 47.8 per cent. It has a caramel nose and a delicate flavour that at first emphasises vanilla, then segues into a hint of clove. The plum fruit returns in the finish, which is markedly smoother than the 12-year-olds. Not having been a rye fan, Van Winkle admits, that the thing that shocked him was that it was a magnificent whiskey.
“I’d get samples and try it on my wife, I’d try it on friends ,without telling them what it was. I did that with this (rye) whiskey and got results from people all saying, ‘Very smooth’.
Then you tell them its rye, and they go, ‘What’s rye?’ Or, ‘Wow! I thought it was Canadian whisky or something.’.”
Van Winkle has a son and two daughters whom he hopes will join him in the family business. Meanwhile, he is waiting for his children, like his rye whiskey, to get older and mature.Buffalo Trace
Standing in the antiseptic confines of the tasting lab at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, Mark Brown is about to let a visitor in on a secret. It is this: since 1981, a cache of rye whiskey has been ageing in the warehouses of the 165-year-old distillery formerly known as Ancient Age. Then, as now, there was not much demand for rye whiskey. So somebody was being a little bit experimental when the whiskey was made, says Brown, president and chief executive of Buffalo Trace parent company Sazerac. The rye sat virtually ignored until
October 1997. Then, during a meeting with his plant supervisors, Brown recalls, “someone said, ‘What are we going to do with this old rye crap we’ve got sitting here?’ And someone else said, ‘What do you mean rye crap? We’ve got rye here?’. “
Brown, who has been in the drinks trade ever since helping his parents run their small pub in southern England, is standing at a table laden with glasses arrayed for nosing and tasting. In one of those glasses sits the result of that 18-year-old experiment. There is not very much of it, just 3,600 bottles worth, which is probably just as well, because no one at Buffalo Trace is expecting it to fly off the shelves when it is released in the spring. Tasting Buffalo Trace is a tremendous pleasure. Take a glass, raise it toward the light, then do the swirl-and-sniff. Possessed of a deep, dark amber colour, the rye wears its age remarkably.
The nose hints of the wild complexity of flavours: burnt orange, mint, pepper and ginger dance together in the aroma. Then sip. On the palate, the whiskey, bottled at 55 per cent, is creamy in its smoothness, with notes of nuts and oak and toasted marshmallow. The finish is smoky, yet soft and full. When I did a rye tasting I could not bring myself to use the tall brass spittoon by my chair. This whiskey is far too elegant for that. Buffalo Trace is not merely releasing an old glory that eventually will run out. The company is distilling new rye that will not hit the market for at least four years. “We’ve gone into this because we’ve seen a breakthrough, consumers getting their heads into American whiskey,” Brown says. “It’s no longer satisfactory to just be a bourbon whiskey. It’s a question of, ‘Well, are there other things within the category?’.” And rye whiskey is a very exciting part of that trend. Consumers’ knowledge and interests are evolving. As Brown sums up, “There’s a tremendous opportunity for rye whiskey. That’s really what is driving us.”
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