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Generation rye

Date
The lesser-known rye-based style of whiskey is coming back into fashion.

The lesser-known rye-based style of whiskey is coming back into fashion.

American whiskey is a product that struggles on these shores to gain the prestige that we accord Scotch. But that doesn't stop us quaffing the stuff - Australia is the largest market for bourbon whiskey outside of the US.

Despite bourbon's popular appeal, rye whiskey – America's drier, spicier and often more complex dram – is a relatively small player on the local whisk(e)y scene. But times are a-changin' thanks to bars and bartenders who are passionate about the stuff. Its robust character and classic cocktail pedigree also makes it the perfect dram to enjoy as the cooler weather sets in.

So here's a quick guide to set you in good stead to taking bourbon's hipper older brother out on the town.

America's original spirit

When Scottish and Irish settlers arrived in New England, they already had a love for whisky ingrained in their cultures. They also thought they'd finally escaped the dreaded excise man and would be able to distill in peace.

It wasn't all plain sailing, however; they found that their preferred distilling grain, barley, didn't grow too well in the new climate and had to resort to using rye which, though more difficult to distill, could at least be found in abundance.

Pennsylvania and Virginia became the heartland for rye whiskey production and even George Washington got in on the act with his own distillery in Mount Vernon, Virginia turning sizable profits to the tune of over $1000 in 1789. It didn't stop Washington from issuing a "whiskey tax" in 1791 to help repay the burgeoning nation's debts following the Revolutionary War.

The tax resulted in the "Whiskey Insurrection" which, though quashed by government troops, saw many distillers move west into Kentucky and Tennessee (today America's whiskey capitols) to be further once again from the tax man.

Mash bill

So what, exactly, is rye whiskey? The most important point here is the recipe of grains – called the "mash bill". In order to label a whiskey as a "rye" in the US you need to have a mash consisting of at least 51 per cent rye grain – the balance can be made up with corn, barley or wheat.

The grains are milled, fermented and distilled before being aged in new charred American oak barrels for a minimum of two years, though most bottlings are generally at least twice this age.

Canadian whisky is often referred to as "rye" but is not considered such in the US because it contains less than the required 51 per cent of rye grain.

Cocktail pedigree

Not only was rye America's original whiskey, it's also the original cocktail spirit. Many cocktails that are made with bourbon today were conceived with rye, including popular tipples such as the Whiskey Sour, Sazerac, Old Fashioned and Manhattan.

I suggest you pull a stool up to a well-stocked bar and pay a few of these tried and tested drops a re-visit with rye. Failing that, get creative at home with the Red Hook cocktail below. Named after a neighbourhood in the New York borough of Brooklyn, this delicious rye mix is a modern riff on the Manhattan and Brooklyn cocktails. It's credited to American bartender Enzo Errico.

Ingredients:

50ml straight rye whiskey
20ml Punt e Mes (a bittered sweet vermouth found in good bottle stores)
5ml maraschino liqueur (an Italian dry cherry liqueur)

Method:

Add all ingredients into a mixing glass or shaker. Fill with ice and stir until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail glass and garnish if you must with a cherry.

16 comments

  • Hooray! At last someone is taking notice of rye in this country... enjoy a *real* Manhattan made on good rye and you'll never look back!

    Commenter
    Erzahler
    Date and time
    May 05, 2013, 9:42PM
    • Rye with freshly squeezed Granny Smith apples is amazing also. Had a few at Baxter's Inn in Sydney. Must try.

      Commenter
      BB
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 8:38AM
  • 'Not only was rye America's original whiskey, it's also the original cocktail spirit.' Um, not rum? Come on. Indeed, tequila was invented in about 1550 (don't know how long it took to get to present-day US territory).

    Commenter
    ppp
    Location
    m
    Date and time
    May 05, 2013, 10:58PM
    • A nice, brief history on Rye there. I'm a Scotch man, but am always looking to expand my horizons - got any suggestions of decent Rye whiskeys to get started on?

      Commenter
      Colour me intrigued
      Date and time
      May 05, 2013, 11:29PM
      • Exactly. Nice piece.
        But we need some Brands to look for and get us started.
        Recommend peeps.

        Commenter
        timilla
        Location
        Bondi
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 11:19AM
    • OH dear,

      You priase the stuff but show a picture of it with ice in (to kill the taste I assume) and a ghastly sounding bitter cherry thing again no doubt masking the taste. If it is any good - tell us what to look for in a bottle of the stuff - ie what to buy, what to avoid, which are the best distilleries, ageing methods (min 2 years - sounds rough), variations in style and what do we pay for a decent bottle. I do not want to have to put anything in mine except perhaps some wster thanks.

      Commenter
      JohnH
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 5:43AM
      • No need for the ice sledge. Yes I know - it's not the right way to drink it unless neat or with a splash of water etc. However, as I had pointed out to me, these rules pre-date easily accessible ice so there should be room for review here. I agree it traps the vapour to an extent but over the course of a decent sized glass I think you get there in the end once your ice cube has melted. And that - is my 2 cents.

        Commenter
        DeaLar
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 8:56AM
    • And Americas favourite drink is vodka.

      Commenter
      Kane
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 6:09AM
      • I thought it was Coca Cola.

        Commenter
        Kel
        Date and time
        May 06, 2013, 9:17AM
    • Good luck procuring any decent rye whiskey in Australia. While you might be lucky enough to find Jim Beam Rye at Dan Murphy's, not even in the well-stocked duty free shop at Sydney Airport will you find any Rittenhouse or Old Overholt.

      Commenter
      Thirsty
      Location
      Northern Beaches
      Date and time
      May 06, 2013, 7:11AM

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