Rye Makes a Comeback
Americans take a second look at an old favorite
Like the hardboiled protagonists of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, my grandfather was a rye drinker. My mother remembers seeing him mixing large cocktail shakers full of rye and sweet vermouth on most days of the week, and pouring out tumblers full of the light brown concoction. Of course, this was after his stop at the bar on the way home, and before the six-pack of Ballantine beer that followed dinner. It was the ’60s. Times have changed. Smoking five packs of cigarettes a day and gulping down entire shakers full of booze isn’t as admired now. But rye seems to be on a 40-year cycle: popular before prohibition, then again in the fifties. And now it’s back.
If it’s so good, why did rye ever disappear? For that we have to look at a little history. In the 1700s, rum was the national drink. But American distillers were making rye for a simple reason: the grain was available in abundance, especially in the Eastern states, like Pennsylvania, where the population was centered. Then Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton tried to institute a whiskey tax. Officially, the purpose was to help cut the national debt, but privately Hamilton admitted that the tax was enforced as “a measure of social discipline.” Farmers, distillers and drinkers weren’t too fond of these taxes, and so ensued a little struggle known as the Whiskey Rebellion, which, incidentally, is my favorite rebellion, because who wants social discipline?
“People were drinking a lot,” said Bill Hogeland, author of “The Whiskey Rebellion,” a book about this period in American history. “There was an endless market for alcohol, endless consumption, you couldn’t go broke selling whiskey.” There was a broader market for it then. It was drunk by “children, considered medicinal, drunk at public events, in a bucket outside of church, at political meetings,” Hogeland said. “The only way to go broke [selling rye whiskey] was if the government favored big distillers and taxed the smaller ones.” And that’s exactly what happened.
To avoid the heavy tax, many producers headed west to Kentucky, where they made whiskey with what they had: corn. Which meant bourbon, which is whiskey made from corn rather than rye or (as Irish or Scotch whiskeys), barley. But those who stayed in the east persevered, and soon whiskey replaced rum as the national drink.
During Prohibition, Canadian whiskeys took over. Many cocktail recipes still call for Canadian whiskey rather than rye, just because American distillers lost their markets during this period. So, as we are often told to do, blame Canada for the dearth of American rye. After Prohibition, when drinkers’ eyes turned to the American whiskey producers, they saw that the plants had been dismantled or repurposed. But the producers further West were able, due to smaller populations, to start up again using the old stills. Again, they made whiskey with what they had: corn, which, again, meant bourbon.
Over the past two years, rye has resurged in popularity in the U.S. top shelf cocktail scene. Fritz Maytag of Anchor Steam has since 1996 been producing one of the few U.S. 100 percent malted rye whiskeys, under the name Old Potrero Single Malt Whiskey. Austin Nichols Master Distiller Jimmy Russell in 2007 released Russell’s Reserve Rye. A classic rye standby, Old Overholt, made by Jim Beam, is in this group.
It had been 70 years since rye was produced in New York state. But Tuthilltown Spirits, a small distillery in Gardiner, NY, has ended those empty years, and is producing small batches of artisanal rye. Co-owner Ralph Erenzo understands why there is so little rye in the world today. It’s a tough grain to wrestle into submission. Its yield is lower than corn’s, and it is physically hard to handle. “The rye grain itself is very glue-like,” says Erenzo, “it sticks to everything.” The first time they tried to make rye, it took Erenzo two days of soaking in a hot citric acid bath to remove the thick layer of rye that caked the walls of the still.
Though he can’t explain the sudden demand, he speculates that what made people tire of vodka was the same thing that made it so popular: its neutral qualities. “People with informed palates are starting to look for something different,” he said. And rye certainly is different. Erenzo describes it as having a “naturally peppery nature” and a “real grassy quality.” Rye pops with individuality that causes it to be the center of any mixed drink, most notably the Manhattan, as my Grandfather, were he still around, would gladly attest to. So maybe there’s hope for America’s once-favorite spirit. And perhaps even for the spirit of the good old days, when there was nothing a good cocktail, or three, couldn’t fix.