The Original Tipple

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Photo: Offset
Rye’s rebirth connects us to the country’s early history.
These days, when people hear the term “American whiskey,” they almost inevitably think of something like bourbon. Significantly, that style of whiskey is predominantly made from corn—as is, by law, all bourbon. Corn seems the most American of products. Among other things, it sweetens our foods, feeds our animals and powers our cars. But if you want to truly honor the first true national whiskey as well as its history and culture, you should drink rye, America’s first whiskey and the tipple on which the country was founded.
Over the past ten or so years, you may have heard of the rye resurgence, how it’s gone from a practically dead category to one of exceeding popularity. This is true, though a bit misleading. Yes, rye whiskey has grown by over 500 percent in the last eight years, compared to corn-based whiskey’s 30 percent growth. But that says nothing of volume. In 2016, corn-based whiskeys were produced to the tune of 22 million cases, whereas rye—though garnering headlines—was less than a million.
The taste of the colonies
It wasn’t always this way. Indeed, from its beginnings in the late 1700s to its heydays of the 19th century and early 20th, rye was the American spirit. Its bold brash taste, spicy tongue and searing intensity captured the taste and texture of the American experience. At one time, the largest rye whiskey distillery in the U.S. was owned by former President George Washington. It was rye, not bourbon, that inspired iconic cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.
Its bold brash taste, spicy tongue and searing intensity captured the taste and texture of the American experience.
Photo: Anchor Distilling
Despite its ubiquity, the seeds for rye’s demise were sewn by history, political and social, and were no fault of its own. In many ways, rye’s vicissitudes have directly mirrored those of America. To say nothing against bourbon, the rye revival is a victory for those who prefer muscle over fat, flavor over marketing—another sign of the evolution of the country’s palate.
Rye first took hold as a replacement for rum, which was the primary tipple of New England at the time of the Revolutionary War. Blockades and other wartime activities curtailed Caribbean trade, making rum difficult to come by, so local distillers in embryonic America turned to what they could grow. On the northeastern seaboard, that was rye.
The anti-flavor ’50s and the following decades were the anathema to assertive Eastern rye.
A hardy cover crop, it could survive the harsh winters to produce twice a year, fulfilling many needs, including providing starches that could be converted to fermentable sugars and distilled into what was known as Pennsylvania or Maryland whiskey. Sometimes it was called Monongahela whiskey for the mighty river of Pennsylvania, which flowed into the Ohio River and the Mississippi and down to New Orleans, an active and convenient port that could convey this fiery stuff just about anywhere. By the 1780s, over 5,000 stills were pumping out the hooch.
War and taxes
In the 1790s, spurred on by advice from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the government attempted to levy a whiskey tax to help pay off America’s war debt. This didn’t sit well with the farmer/distillers, many of whom didn’t make cash money on their product but bartered with it for other goods.
This contretemps, called the Whiskey Rebellion, reached a fever pitch in 1794, as President Washington deployed 13,000 troops to quash the uprising. It worked, though the tax was repealed in 1802. The net effect, however, was that the crackdown pushed some dissidents west and south into Kentucky, where they found it much easier to grow corn, which made a lighter, sweeter spirit—hence, the birth of bourbon and corn-based whiskey.
Bourbon would grow—by the late 18th century, Kentucky distilleries was more than double of those in Pennsylvania and Maryland—but rye still ruled. There was Kentucky rye, but the mid-Atlantic style, a robust and complex spirit that yet had a cleanliness and buoyancy to it, was the standard.
Just after the end of World War I, Prohibition was ratified, stomping on the business of almost all legally made alcohol. After Prohibition ended in 1933, things didn’t get better for a while. The Depression and World War II followed right on its heels, and America didn’t resume its previous drinking habits until the 1940s. By the end of the war in 1945, something had changed, namely America’s tastes. The thirst for powerful, big-bodied, slap-you-in-the-face whiskey had been softened.
The anti-flavor ’50s and the following decades were the anathema to
assertive Eastern rye.
Going back twenty years, the public had gotten used to drinking Scotch (which, during Prohibition, was bootlegged into the country through Canada and easier to come by than locally distilled stuff) but also blended whiskey, a version of Scotch that was stretched with clear, neutral grain spirit (what we call vodka). It’s a blander form. And, ushering in the era of blandness, Americans suddenly became enamored with vodka itself, drinking it on the rocks, with cranberry juice or in martinis. Whiskey preferences turned to smoother, softer bourbon. Indeed, the anti-flavor ’50s and the following decades were the anathema to assertive Eastern rye. (Gin would suffer, too.)
The Proper Manhattan
Serving: 1
2 ounces rye or bourbon
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Garnish: brandied cherry and lemon or orange twist
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass.
Add ice and stir well.
Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass.
Garnish with a brandied cherry or a lemon twist.
Always drive responsibly, and never drink and drive. Photos: Offset
Western rally
Rye’s resurgence would have to wait almost 50 years, when two unrelated but coincident things happened. No rye was made in Maryland or Pennsylvania during that time, but it was still made in Kentucky—just not very much of it. It was used as a blending agent in bourbon, and many distilleries famously could produce all they needed for their blends in just one day. But then, Fritz Maytag, ever a conservator of American tastes, at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco began to distill rye in the early ’90s as Anchor Distilling Company.
Called Old Potrero, Anchor created the first 100 percent pot-distilled, malted-rye whiskey in generations, and it helped ignite the craft distilling revolution. Just as Anchor was making rye cool again (although it was—and still is—produced in minuscule quantities), America’s bartenders were developing an attendant fascination with pre-Prohibition cocktails. Besides the introduction of drinks like the Martinez and the Last Word, they realized that proper Manhattans wouldn’t have been made with the modern style of bourbon but with more raw, textured American bourbon.
As the bartending revolution spread around the country and the world, so did the craving for real rye. New ryes began to hit the market, and old brands were revived. Once impossible to find, now rye has its own section, populated with excellent versions, from Bulleit to Old Overholt to Knob Creek Rye—not to mention Old Potrero, which tastes great but can be hard to find in stores. Now we’re even getting first tastes of ryes like WhistlePig’s FarmStock—made in part from rye grown on a single farm in Vermont and aged in Vermont oak. It’s taken generations, but rye is finally starting to come back to the shape it was when it left us almost a century ago. And America’s a better place for it.
Photos: Anchor Distilling