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I soon found that I was not at all alone in my ignorance. The drink is generally either unknown or dolefully misunderstood. Though rye was this country's first whiskey and for years the most popular one, the venerable spirit has fallen into lamentable disuse in the last half century or so. It is now an afterthought in most liquor stores, and if you order it in a bar you are likely to get a blank stare or a substitute whiskey. In fact, the Wilson's I was coerced to drink was not even rye at all but a blended whiskey. As for what I stole from my parents, I don't know. It was in a decanter and had no label except a generic metal tag hanging by a chain around the neck. It's fairly likely it wasn't true straight rye.
Several factors contribute to the confusion about rye. Some historical background is in order. The original American distillers were Scots-Irish settlers who immigrated with their stills in tow. Because they weren't the first to get here, they headed west to what is now Pennsylvania and Maryland in search of land to grab. Once settled, they made whiskey. In the spirits world there is a line of reasoning that goes something like, "You drink what you grow;" that is, whatever crops are at hand and plentiful will be used for fermentation and distillation. In Scotland, that was barley. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, it was rye. (They liked the result so much that they were willing to fight the Whiskey Rebellion for it.) It was only when settlers made it as far as Kentucky, where corn was easiest to grow, that Bourbon, with its maize-heavy mash bill, was invented in the last part of the eighteenth century.
So, rye became the favorite American whiskey, especially in the Northeast. That remained true into the early part of the twentieth century. Many of the great cocktails that are today associated with Bourbon -- the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, the Sazerac, the Boilermaker -- were originally concocted with rye.
Then, during Prohibition, rye, like its straight whiskey cousin, Bourbon, disappeared, replaced by Scotch and Canadian whiskies, which were smuggled in, and moonshine. After Prohibition's repeal, American distillers were at a disadvantage. Drinkers had developed a taste for foreign spirits and what alcohol Americans did make needed years to mature. Consumers could either wait four years for American straight whiskeys or enjoy Canadian, a blended, rye-based whisky, right away. Predictably, many rye customers defected to Canadian, especially since some blended American whiskeys that were rushed to market were little better than rotgut. At the same time tastes were veering toward light drinks -- another advantage for blended whiskeys. Bourbon, with its sweeter, more assertive flavor, became the standard bearer for straight whiskey enthusiasts. People began to refer to Canadian and other blended whiskey as rye, and the once-proud spirit faded into obscurity in the wave of confusion. The fact that Chandler framed rye as a tough guy drink for his hard-living detective as early as the '30s indicates that it wasn't at the center of popular American tastes even then.
Soon rye production, which had so long been centered in Pennsylvania and Maryland, became an adjunct to the Bourbon business. By 1984, when Michter's Distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, was shuttered, the making of rye in America was all done in Kentucky, and at only three distilleries at that. The fabled Old Overholt, named for a Pennsylvania farmer, had become a Jim Beam product, and Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill put out their own ryes.
But with the growth of small-batch and single-barrel Bourbons in the last 20 years has come a smaller resurgence in rye, which we are now enjoying. Jim Beam came out with a second rye brand in the 1980s under its own name and featuring a bright yellow label. In the mid-1990s, Fritz Maytag, brewer of Anchor Steam beer in San Francisco, joined the fray with Old Potrero, an unusual product based on a mash bill of 100 percent rye and aged the minimum two years (other ryes get at least four years in oak). Also weighing in was Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, a bottler of super-aged Bourbons, with a 12- and a 13-year-old rye of excellent character. Now, we also have an Ancient Age product of 18 years appropriately called Sazerac (recalling both the cocktail and the New Orleans firm of the same name's involvement in that distillery). There is also a new 15-year-old rye called The Classic Cask, which is bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, using whiskey bought from other distilleries by a Florida-based company.
When I asked Julian Van Winkle of Old Rip Van Winkle why he was moved to create a rye, he said it was because Japanese whiskey lovers were looking for a replacement product after the Michter rye disappeared. He marketed in America at the prodding of whiskey writers Gary Regan and Paul Pacault. "They said, 'God, you got to make this for this country.'" He also confessed than he'd never even had a rye before. "The connotation was bad."
Now, Van Winkle said, he sells as much of that as anything in some markets. His marketing method: "I tell 'em it's rye after they drink it," he says. "They say, 'You're kidding. I thought the stuff was terrible.'"
Jimmy Russell, the master distiller of Wild Turkey, said that he's always made the company's rye, which is 101 proof, for one or two weeks in the fall. In past years, orders have soared, driven, he feels, by interest in France and Japan and by younger people mixing it with cola. "I'm a Bourbon man myself," he said, "but I want Wild Turkey to be the same, day-in day-out, whether it's Bourbon or rye."
Larry Kass, the group marketing manager of Heaven Hill, prides the company in its commitment to rye in the lean years with its three labels: Pikesville, Rittenhouse (80 and 100 proof) and Stephen Foster (available only in the Midwest). "We continue to tend the garden and stoke the fire," he said. Now, Heaven Hill is seeing some dividends from its tenaciousness. "You see it coming from the international market and it's spreading to the U.S. The tail has wagged the dog."
Like Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill devotes only a short time to rye production in the fall. The rye grain itself comes from the northern states and Canada where the growing season is short. Kass cited one of the dangers of procuring rye from areas too far south: "It gets weedy. All it takes is one wild onion in a truckload of rye to screw up your whole mash." The upside of rye production: "Just about the best Bourbon we make is the bourbon that goes through the still after we make rye."
Jerry Dalton, the master distiller at Jim Beam, said that the rye that the company makes for about five days out of the year is "a whole different creature" from Bourbon. "The mash is more viscous and prone to foam, and you have to make compensations for that." He sees rye as part of the general resurgence of brown goods. Part of his job is reacting to what the market will be like four years ahead and making sure there is just enough whiskey for that period.
All this talk of whiskey had moved Dalton to song and he offers up a verse of an old folk song on the subject.
"Rye whiskey, rye whiskey,
Rye whiskey, I cry,
If you don't give me rye whiskey,
I surely will die."
It was hard for me to imagine Philip Marlowe breaking out into such lyrics as he nursed his wounds or lamented the skirt that got away, but I had to reflect that they were all part of a rye heritage that I might have missed if not for the intrepid shamus.
As to the question "How many slugs of rye can one man take?" -- it turns out quite a few. And I wish there were more.
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