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Straight From the Barrel: A Pocket Full of Rye Whiskey

Jack Bettridge
Posted: January 8, 2001

How many slugs -- of the meaty-fisted, .45-caliber or rye-whiskey variety -- can one man take? That was the question that got me here.

A few years ago, I was rereading Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe mysteries and marveling how every couple of pages our hero seemed to get biffed by some goon, dodge a bullet, or take a snort of rye from the bottle in his desk drawer. I was questioning my own ability to bear up under such a regimen when a deeper issue occurred to me: when was the last time I even drank rye?

I'd first sampled it as a kid, rifling my parents' liquor cabinet with a friend. It made the same impression on our inexperienced palates as every other brown spirit: harsh and austere. Happily, it was foreboding enough that we wandered off before we had one of those wretched experiences that ruins your taste for an otherwise fine spirit for life.

Later, in my 20s, I revisited rye at the -- shall we say -- suggestion of some bar mates. I was at a roadhouse in a factory town in upstate New York trying to order a Jack Daniel's, when one of the foundry workers standing nearby told me that that just didn't go. Instead, I should order something called Wilson's Rye, because it was union made. I looked at his forearms, forged by years of pounding things with hammers. I allowed as how Wilson's was a good idea. I drank my shot and left. My main impression was that I had been cowed into ordering something I didn't want.

That story should explain why years later I didn't feel I had the fortitude or the inclination to compete with Marlowe in the areas of fisticuffs or ballistics. But there I was -- a so-called whiskey enthusiast who didn't really know much of anything about rye. That had to be remedied.

I went straightaway to a liquor store and was greeted by a squeaky-clean young man who asked how he could help me. "Rye," I said, trying to imagine how Humphrey Bogart would have ordered it as Marlowe in The Big Sleep. "I need rye." I was promptly directed to a display of Canadian Club and Seagram's 7. "No, I mean straight rye whiskey." Then I got an argument and a dose of attitude that I have to imagine Bogie never received (at least, not more than once). Finally, a cooler head intervened in the form of the older and wiser store owner.

"I think we still carry it," he said. "We keep it over here." And there in the corner of the cabinet past all the Scotches and Bourbons and after an ugly patch of sweet frou frou such as Yukon Jack and Southern Comfort, was the lone bottle of Old Overholt rye, a little dusty, but still looking like something a man could pick off the wall without risking testosterone failure. I snatched it up, took it home, poured three fingers into a highball glass, and took a good whiff. "Formidable!" I thought.

"The same stand-up-and-take-notice nose I've learned to love from Bourbon." This I expected -- the formulas are very similar, one with more rye, the other with more corn. Then I tasted it. Yes, something like Bourbon same oakiness, hints of vanilla, licorice, nectar -- but different. There was a spiciness, a smooth tartness there that was more exotic and coquettish than the straight-ahead sweetness and burn of Bourbon. It was flirting with me, beckoning me and then running off, daring me to chase it. I warmed to the hunt immediately. Soon, I was seeking out ryes with the same fervor that I had once reserved for new bottlings of small-batch Bourbons. The difference was in the difficulty in acquiring new tastes. But it was, and is, certainly worth the ride. The chance to search out the excellent but older ryes that have become sleepers on package-store shelves as well as sample the tasty new entries into the category made correcting this shortcoming in whiskey knowledge an enviable job.


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