This past weekend, I made my first attempt at organized proselytizing. I hosted a small American Rye Whiskey tasting at my apartment. Five students were present while I spoke the Word about malted rye. Most were familiar with bourbon, Irish, and Scottish whisk(e)ys. However, rye remained a mystery. We talked about the history of rye and why it gets a bad rap. After all, rye is the first truly American spirit and was once the base for most American whiskey cocktails. Why is it so feared and reviled?
Rye’s dubious past began with Prohibition. While bourbon was still being produced as “medicinal whiskey,” inferior ryes were being produced in bathtubs or imported from Canada. This helped bourbon gain a strangle hold on the American whiskey scene. Another reason rye gets a bad rap is also the reason bourbon gets a bad rap and that is the ubiquitous availability of crappy, harsh, fiery whiskeys. Rye is thought of as something guys will drink on a dare or “to put hair on [their] chests.”
To combat previously held prejudices and fears, I hand picked six ryes that I thought sure to enthrall the harshest skeptic. Our tasting menu contained (in order of tasting): Michter’s US-1 Rye Whiskey, Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey, Sazerac 6yo Rye, Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond Rye, Russell’s Reserve 6yo Rye, and Old Potrero 19th Century Single Malt Straight Rye Whiskey. I chose these six whiskeys based on heritage, current producer, and mash bill as well as more subjective criteria revolving around my concept of “good” whiskey (my chest is hairy enough thank you very much). Eventually, Richard and I will post formal reviews of all of these but I’m just going to give you the highlights of the night.
The Sazerac was the standout favorite of these six. Smooth and very drinkable when neat, Sazerac held up well to the addition of water and we concluded that it would hold its own in a cocktail (I know the truth of that from experience). Sazerac also went well with the blue cheese on the cheese plate and the brownies served after the formal tasting. Furthermore, a bottle of Sazerac 6 yo will only set you back about $25. This is the one everyone went to for seconds.
The Old Potrero (the only 100% rye on the menu) gained accolades for uniqueness, but we determined that it was an occasional dram, not as accessible as the Sazerac.
Old Overholt surprised us all with its flavor and nose, but fell completely flat with the addition of water. If you want something cheap to drink neat any day of the week, here’s your dram. However, this will not hold up in a cocktail.
For a rich cocktail experience at a very low price, the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye is surely the way to go. 100 proof, 4 years old, tasty and under $20. Who can ask for more?
We all liked the Michter’s, but it didn’t earn as much appreciation as the other drams. I feel like the 10 yo Michter’s would have gone over better with this crowd.
Lastly, we were all a little disappointed with the Russell’s Reserve. While this is a HUGE step up from the stock standard Wild Turkey Rye, it did not have the strength of character to tussle with the rest of the tasting menu.
There were a few folks in the group who had bad rye experiences and a few who had never tried rye. All were surprised by the complexity and approachability that these six Rye whiskeys offered. I think we may have some converts to the wider world of whiskey experience.
If you would like my notes from our tasting (which include a short history of rye and of each dram along with tasting notes), just drop me a line.
Drink well, drink responsibly.