Them good ol’ boys were drinkin whiskey and rye
Singing, “This’ll be the day that I die,
This’ll be the day that I die.”
—“American Pie,” Don MacLean
Rye. It’s one of the quintessential American whiskeys, a part of our history going back to the founding of the United States. George Washington distilled it, different regions had different styles, and the world’s earliest whiskey cocktails—the sazerac, old-fashioned, whiskey sour, and manhattan, among others—were made with it. But after Prohibition, rye faded into obscurity, to the point where many people, including knowledgeable whiskey drinkers, didn’t know exactly what it was. Was rye a whiskey (the Don MacLean song “American Pie” probably contributed to the confusion on this point)? Was it Canadian whisky? What did it taste like?
Fortunately, with the revitalization of cocktail culture and the burgeoning interest in small-batch distilleries, rye is making a comeback. For a whiskey to be labeled “rye” in the US, it has to be made from at least 51% rye mash, be aged in new charred-oak barrels, and be bottled at no less than 80 proof. Aside from these guidelines, distillers are basically free to make rye however they like, whether riffing off a pre-Prohibition recipe or making up one on their own. For this reason, and because no one *really* knows exactly what the original styles of American rye tasted like, there’s a wide variety of ryes on the market. Chances are, if you enjoy drinking whiskey, there’s a type of rye out there that’s perfect for you. So where to start?
Here are five to try to introduce you to the world of rye:
During Prohibition, the town of Templeton, Iowa, was famous for its bootlegged rye whiskey, a favorite of Al Capone and his gangster buddies, which was served in speakeasies throughout the mid-west. The current incarnation of Templeton’s rye whiskey claims to be based off the original Prohibition recipe—a slightly questionable assertion, but either way Templeton Rye is still deserving of Capone’s moniker for it: “The good stuff.” Light, smooth, and perfectly balanced, Templeton has hints of honey that set the stage for the peppery kick that rye is known for. But by far the best thing about Templeton is the finish: long and sweet, with a bright pop of peppermint. It can easily be enjoyed straight-up or on the rocks, but mix it in a classic Prohibition cocktail like the scofflaw and you might be surprised by the sweet results. An extremely accessible rye whiskey that’s well worth the price of a bottle.
And now for something completely different. Bulleit produces a “straight” rye, meaning it’s not balanced with corn like Templeton Rye is: it’s 95% rye and 5% malted barley. It’s a very aggressive, spicy rye that burns like cinnamon-flavored Red Hots on the way down and finishes quite dry. This is a great rye to familiarize yourself with straight rye and get an idea of exactly how much kick you like you in your whiskey. Especially recommend if you enjoy Bulleit’s rye-heavy (28%) bourbon.
Pendleton 1910 Canadian Rye Whisky
Pendleton is known for its light, smooth Canadian “cowboy” whisky. As alluded to previously, Canadian whisky and rye whiskey are often confused, because historically Canadian whisky—a blended whisky—is made with rye. But Canadian whisky doesn’t have to have any rye in it whatsoever to be called Canadian, and isn’t technically a rye whiskey. In any case, 1910 is a limited-release by Pendleton commemorating the first Pendleton Round-Up, an annual rodeo in Oregon, and is made from 100% Canadian rye. It starts off sweet—maybe a little too sweet—like a maple sugar candy, before you get the peppery kick of the rye. The finish is clean and slightly citrusy. Not as accessible as Templeton Rye, but more complex, and it makes a great old fashioned. If you tried Templeton and liked it, Pendleton is another rye worth picking up.
George Dickel Rye
A tiny little secret: the same liquid that makes Bulleit Rye also makes Dickel Rye. Both companies are owned by the same conglomerate (Diageo) and distilled in the same place, using the same blend of 95% rye to 5% barley mash. So what’s the difference between them? Dickel takes a page from its traditional Tennessee whiskey distilling process and cold filters its rye through charcoal before bottling. The result is a soft mouthfeel with a very strong, peppery kick and a butterscotch candy finish. Dickel Rye doesn’t have the smoothness and layers of flavor that Bulleit has, but it’s a perfect example of modern distillers experimenting with rye by applying different techniques to the distillation process. It’s also a perfect choice for cocktails such as remember the main and the ward 8.
Hunter Rye Canadian Whisky
Most of the above rye whiskeys will run you between $30 and $50, but what if you want to try rye whiskey and not spend a bunch of money doing it? The answer is Hunter Rye, a Canadian whisky imported by the Sazerac company. It’s definitely rougher than Templeton Rye, though it has a similar balance of honey and pepper. But at $10 a bottle, even with the rough finish it’s a freaking bargain. Drop some orange bitters in your old fashioned or manhattan and you’re good to go.