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Rye's Rise Resumes

Jack Bettridge
Posted: November 7, 2008

Straight rye whiskey's recent phenomenal turnaround in popularity continues with a new entry from Beam Global Spirits & Wine named (rī)1 (pronounced rye one) and offered in the ultrapremium category at $46 to $48 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

The whiskey comes in a striking package with a decidedly contemporary design for a category that has typically been clothed more rustically. The bottle is a tall, clear cylinder with a label that announces itself with the unusual graphical representation of its name, with "rye" spelled "ri" in parentheses with an accent on the "I," and a superscript "1". Beam plans to market future variants called (rī)2 and (rī)3, but has not said when or how they would differ from the first.

(rī)1 is a darkly colored rye, but is lighter in body than Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Rye and Rittenhouse 23-year-old, two other recent entrants, in the superpremium and ultrapremium rye markets, respectively. The nose of this 92-proof rye is spicy, but still sweet with notes of maple and caramel. On the palate, it is immediately sweet and then warms to spicy pepper, cinnamon and vanilla notes. The spirit continues very hearty and smooth and then has a split second of sharp cheese taste before it settles into a long mellow finish.

Mara Melamed, the brand manager, emphasized the modern character of the whiskey, calling it a "cutting-edge spirit" that was "a fresh take on a classic: with its smooth taste and stylish packaging."

Until about a decade ago straight rye had occupied a lower shelf in the whiskey market. It was then rediscovered by whiskey enthusiasts, who found its spicy taste an interesting alternative to smoky Scotch and sweet Bourbon, as well as by cocktail purists, who sought to make classic drinks with their authentic recipes. (Straight rye was the spirit used to make the original Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. Beam suggests (rī)1 in a Manhattan as well as a modern signature recipe, the Rising Sun, made with lemon and orange juice.)

Once the most consumed whiskey in America, straight rye's fortunes tumbled with Prohibition, which virtually eliminated its production and sale for 13 years. Canadian whisky, a lighter blend that includes some rye grain, insinuated itself into the American palate as it was easily smuggled across the border. Even after Prohibition, it was years before straight rye was available as any new whiskey needed to be aged before release.

Straight rye whiskey, like Bourbon, is produced under strict guidelines, which include that it be aged in charred, new oak for at least two years (four if no age statement is made), that it enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof and that nothing but water be mixed into it before bottling. The two whiskeys differ in their grain recipes, or mash bills. Straight rye, which must include more than 50 percent rye, usually also has a corn and barley component. The Bourbon mash bill, which must be more than 50 percent corn, is typically filled out with rye and barley.

The market for straight rye nearly disappeared in most areas (save for such eastern locations as Pennsylvania and Maryland, which were traditionally rye producers). With consolidation of alcohol companies, production largely shifted to Kentucky, where Bourbon distillers now make it. Before the mid-1990s, only a few straight ryes were available, some of which were relegated to regional distribution. Stores that sold rye typically offered standard, but venerable, issues from Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam, as well as Old Overholt, which Beam distills.

The resurgence of the rye market was spearheaded by such superpremium whiskeys as Old Rip Van Winkle, Sazerac and Old Potrero, the latter being unusual in that it is made with a mash bill of 100 percent rye. Others include Hirsch, Michters and Hudson Manhattan ryes.

When the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States rebuilt George Washington's distillery on the grounds of the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, it began producing miniscule amounts of rye whiskey in the small pot stills there, as that is what the former president had made.

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