Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The return of a classic

There is a salute to rye whiskey in today's New York Times by Eric Asimov that is worth a look. As someone who has always found a good rye, like that distilled by Wild Turkey, to be a fitting companion to a fine cigar (Hoyo de Monterrey for example, or a Cuban Romeo y Julieta) I'm glad to see rye making a comeback.

My first exposure to rye was in the over-the-top and unintentionally funny movie The Lost Weekend,in which a degenerate alcoholic, played by Ray Milland, steals his brother's rent money to buy rye whiskey and goes on a five day bender (sort of the Reefer Madness of booze).

Although rye was presented as the cheapest possible rotgut that one could buy when I say a bottle of Wild Turkey rye sitting on the shelf of a liquor store one day I just had to try it. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be quite excellent.

Anyway, here is a part of what Mr. Asimov has to say about rye:

It used to be the signature whiskey of the United States. George Washington distilled it. Men fought over it in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Classic cocktails like the manhattan, the Sazerac and the Ward 8 were invented for it. Humphrey Bogart swigged it. But the rise of vodka, bourbon and single-malt scotch, along with the decline of the distilling industry in the Northeast, the stronghold of rye production, turned rye into a relic.

For decades, it clung tenuously to life, barely preserved by a couple of distilleries that would not let it lapse. A dedicated search might have turned up no more than a few dusty bottles lingering on the bottom shelves of downtrodden liquor stores. Many people came to believe that Canadian whiskey was synonymous with rye, though Canadian generally contained a smaller proportion of rye than American rules mandate.

Now though, in a turnabout, the prospects for rye have brightened considerably. Fueled by the same sense of curiosity and geeky connoisseurship that gave birth to the microbrew industry, the single-malt avalanche and myriad small-batch bourbons, rye has been resurrected by whiskey lovers who want to preserve its singular, almost exotic essence.

Unlike bourbon, which is characteristically sweet, smooth and rounded, rye has a dry, jangly, brash nature. Its spicy flavors practically dance their way through the mouth. In its simplest form, rye is a little grassy and sour, much like rye bread. With age, it becomes more complex and subtle, weaving spice and caramel flavors over and through the grassiness. Yet it retains its angularity, never quite losing its edginess. A manhattan, made as originally conceived — with rye instead of bourbon — is a completely different cocktail, dynamic rather than soothing, more Harley-Davidson than Cadillac.

I would say that I'm going to run right out and get a bottle, but rye can be difficult to find around here, still I shall endeavour to persevere.