Rye whiskey is in the middle of an incredible renaissance. It all started when classic cocktails regained popularity. On most lists you will find cocktails with a traditional rye base such as sazeracs, manhattans, and old fashioned, all classically prepared or twisted with new bitters, infusions and anything these mad scientists we call bartenders can think of. In order for you, as the reader, to truly appreciate rye whiskey you need to know the basics of whiskey production. (Pictured above: @whistlepigwhiskey Another brisk morning at the WhistlePig Farm with our Master Blender.)
A recipe of sorts is created by the master distiller and his team on what the final profile should be. This recipe of grains is called a mash bill. Mash bills are a symphony of grains with each playing a piece in the final product. Corn adds sweetness; wheat adds a bready note; barley adds nuttiness; and rye adds a little spice and heat. Once a plan is in place for the mash bill the grains are mixed with warm water to create a porridge like mixture called a mash. Tnce the grains are strained out and the liquid is known as a wort.
Yeast is then added to the cauldron which will take the sugars from the grains and ferment them into alcohol. Once the yeast is through eating all the sugar the liquid resembles a beer in texture and alcohol %, clocking in between 7-10% abv. The “distiller’s beer” is then put into a copper pot still and turned into a distilled spirit by heating the liquid in batches and because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water the alcohol vapor is sent through a condenser where it cools and the compounds become more concentrated. The first and last of the vapors (head and tail) that are sent through are often discarded because there is the highest concentration of impurities and fusel alcohols. The more these fusel alcohols are in a batch the more off-putting and bitter the product will be. Now that a base spirit has been made the aging process begins allowing the spirit to become a whiskey.
Pictured above: @whistlepigwhiskey Ready to level up your #clearice game?
What makes the spirit become a whiskey is when the product is aged in charred new oak barrels. It also must go into the barrel no more than 62.5% alcohol to age. Different types of whiskey have their own rules for length of time and type of barrel. Oftentimes once the initial aging is done distillers put the product in different barrels to further age. A majority of these barrels were used to age wine or other spirits before its second use on the whiskey. The subtle flavors are pulled out of the used oak to add a different dimension to the whiskey. To be labeled as a Rye in America, a product needs to be 51% or more rye grain.
Rye really took a back seat to bourbon in the last 75 years due to the ease of corn growth and the subsidizing of the corn industry during the two World Wars. Similarly to rye, to be labeled a bourbon it must be made from 51% or more corn. Bourbon also has a slightly sweeter and fuller-bodied profile which gives it a little less of a harsh punch. Rye is truly made for cocktails as it has a dryer profile with a perfect little spice note which will enhance nearly any whiskey-based cocktail. If you take the old fashioned… rye + a sugar cube + bitters + orange peel + splash of water… just break it down into its base elements… spicy heat + sweetness + bitterness + citrus burst + a little bit of dilution allows something for all of your taste buds to enjoy.
Build your cocktail in a flat bottom cocktail glass, aptly known as an old fashioned glass
1 sugar cube + 2 dashes bitters (muddle in glass) + whiskey + orange peel + water (stir)
The rye producer you should be looking for is WhistlePig from Vermont. Dave Pickerell was a distiller for one of the big-name whiskey companies but really wanted to play with rye. Although the company never allowed him to produce under their name, they offered him some time and assistance to chase his dream. Dave and the WhistlePig team began their journey in 2007 beginning with a few barrels of 10 year rye found in an old distillery in Canada. The purchase allowed them to begin bottling whiskey right away and take time to identify the right fields. The rye used by WhistlePig is from fields chosen by their own grain team, mostly Canadian rye fields. This allows them to control production of their product from seed to bottle keeping the quality level at its peak. While they do use the other usual suspects in their mash bill it is more to assist with the balance in the finished product.
You likely sit and enjoy old fashioneds at your favorite bar (or in these times, your favorite porch rocker) and have always noticed that your drink needs that one more ingredient change to make it the perfect sip. It just may be that all you needed to do was swap your everyday whiskey to a rye. The dryness just may be that missing flavor to make it the perfect cocktail. Try it. You will not be disappointed.
– Ginger Lasalle. Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper, September 2020. is formerly a wine sommelier at The Greenbrier Resort. She is a beverage consultant and trainer and shaping beverage programs across Western Massachusetts. Follow Ginger on facebook @winescapeswmass.