It's gratifying when anything flirts with extinction and bounds back into the limelight. Such is the case with rye whiskey. Ten years ago it was an afterthought on a remote shelf in your liquor shop and nonexistent in most bars. Today a clutch of rarified superaged expressions is the talk of well-informed whiskey mavens.
Ponder the whiskey's near demise to understand its rebirth. Rye predated Bourbon as colonial America's favorite, being the first whiskey distilled by rye-growing settlers in the East. Then Prohibition nearly killed it. During its enforced absence drinkers tried Canadian whiskey, which while containing rye is not a straight whiskey. It was, however, a smooth alternative and tastes changed. Straight rye lost so much market share that most production moved to Kentucky as a sideline to Bourbon making, which differs only in that corn, not predominates in the grain recipe.
When single-malt Scotches and specialty Bourbons created a cult of whiskey geeks, some craved a spicy middle ground between smoky Scotch and sweet Bourbon. Then came a wellspring of crafted ryes. Old Rip Van Winkle, a whiskey negotiant, created its 13-year-old Family Reserve Rye. Buffalo Trace made an 18-year-old that shares the name Sazerac with an old rye-based cocktail. Fritz Maytag, creator of Anchor Steam beer, made a whiskey purely from rye (no corn or barley). Also into this concatenation of events came artesinal bartenders who saw that many of the classic cocktails now mixed with Canadian were originally straight rye drinks, and they have revived that tradition.
That's great, right? Yes, except for the familiar whiskey conundrum: no one predicted a rye rush early enough (decades ago) to start aging it in earnest. While the above products tickle our taste, there mightn't be enough to go around. Julian Van Winkle, president of Old Rip Van Winkle, had to begin rationing his product years ago because it came from a finite number of barrels he managed to locate and, as he says, "when that's gone, it's gone." Or at least until the whiskey he makes in partnership with Buffalo Trace comes of age. In the meantime, he has placed the Family Reserve batch in stainless steel to keep it from aging further. Sazerac has experienced similar shortages.
So why in the midst of this dearth of old rye comes Old Rittenhouse, first realized two years ago as a 21-year-old and now as a 23-year-old? Serendipity, says Larry Kass of Heaven Hill. The company made the whiskey, then sold it to a distributor for use as a private-label rye, but aged it in its warehouse for the customer, who never used it. When Heaven Hill saw how old the rye had become, it bought it back. The whiskey aged admirably because it had been kept in the cool ground and second floors of its warehouse and now is a complex spice bomb. But, of course, when it's gone, it's gone.
What if you can't find these rarities? Try easier-to-come-by but still tasty ryes—such as Old Overholt, Wild Turkey, and the standard Rittenhouse and Sazerac expressions.
Photo by Bill Milne