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American History By The Glass
A look at how Bourbon, straight rye and Tennessee whiskeys are intertwined with American history
Posted: August 9, 2013
(continued from page 3)
Prior to Prohibition rye was the most popular American whiskey. It developed a reputation as a refined spirit of the East, while Bourbon was the quaff of the frontier. When city slickers took to mixing, rye's urbanity also made it the prototype base for many seminal cocktails—the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac. With a flavor profile that reflects its grain content (at least 51 percent rye, typically joined by corn and barley), its spiciness marries well with the sweetness of many mixers.
Dozens of ryes were once made in the East and two general styles—Maryland and Monongahela—stood out. The former was less spicy, characterized by 60 percent rye formula that was recreated at Washington's distillery, which was recently refurbished. The latter was the style of western Pennsylvania and was more informed by rye (80 percent and more). By the 1990s, only a handful of rye examples remained and consolidation of the industry meant they were all made in Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. None were very old or very rye forward.
What had whipsawed American straight rye whiskey were Prohibition and a developing taste for Canadian whisky. That spirit was easily smuggled across our northern border and was even sometimes called rye. It seemed a natural substitute, but wasn't. The characteristically smooth Canadian whisky is a blend-and not a straight whiskey-and typically contains very little rye. And it doesn't have the same effect as straight rye in classic mixed drinks. The champions of the ongoing cocktail revival discovered this when they resurrected old recipes. Thereafter started an outcry for more straight rye whiskey.
While Kentucky and Pennsylvania contributed greatly to our national whiskeys, Tennessee should not be forgotten for it was there that the Lincoln County Process was developed.
The method calls for filtering new-make spirit through several feet of maple charcoal before it is aged. This step, which is performed both in making Jack Daniel's and George Dickel, provides a characteristic smoothness to products labeled Tennessee whiskey or Tennessee sour mash whiskey. They are otherwise made very similarly to Bourbon.
The founders of both whiskeys, Jack Daniel and George W. Dickel, plied their trade in the last half of the 19th century. And both met tragic ends. Dickel died after a horseback riding accident. Daniel, left far more ignominiously according to legend. He kicked his safe one morning when he realized he had forgotten the combination and no one was around to remind him. A toe became infected, and he died of blood poisoning soon after.
Happily, however, each had able heirs—Dickel's wife Augusta and Daniel's nephew Lem Motlow—who chose to continue on with the noble heritage of American whiskey.
Read Whiskey Cocktails: The Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Sazerac and Mint Julep for more on how to concoct the perfect whiskey drink.
Comments 2 comment(s)
Zander Goss — Chicago, IL, — August 10, 2013 7:55pm ET
JACK BETTRIDGE — NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES, — August 10, 2013 11:39pm ET
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