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A Toast to Rye

I was hopping some downtown bars recently with a trio of cocktail aficionados. Not pinky-waving snobs, mind you, but serious and dedicated drinkers who admire a well-constructed cocktail the way you might admire a well-struck eighteen-foot double-breaking putt.

On this night we were looking to drink rye. It's a measure of how utterly ignored rye is in this country that in creditable bars there is often only one or two ryes to be found, if that. The first bar we went to could muster sufficient rye for only one Manhattan, which the bartender then proceeded to screw up by frantically shaking until it had a thick, Guinness-like foam on top. "The foam," another bartender told me in a different bar after demonstrating an exceedingly careful stirring method that involved some tricky, supple wrist action—he might have been stirring nitro—"the foam is caused by too much agitation of the bitters." This bartender, named Tony, produced a rye Manhattan of pristine amber clarity, a faultless drink, perfectly balancing the bite of the whiskey and bitters with the sweetness of the Noilly Prat dry vermouth. Tony added, after finishing the last of four staggeringly beautiful cocktails with the flourish of a high pour: "Not a lot of people come in here asking for rye. Only the sophisticated ones." The latter was of course nothing but tip cultivation, but we were not displeased, and tipped him well.

It's a pity more don't drink rye. Rye is the original early American whiskey, when the pot stills were set up in the eighteenth century. Back then, the drink was probably almost clear for being consumed young, without much or any barrel aging. But rye was eclipsed, after Prohibition, by corn-based Kentucky and Tennessee whiskies and assorted Canadian versions. The Canadian whiskies are known as rye, of course, but don't have much rye character because they tend to be blends of small amounts of rye or other whiskey with large amounts of clear, neutral spirits—smooth and mild, but as far from straight rye as light beer is from Belgian ale.

Meanwhile, most of the action in American whiskey has centered on reviving corn-based bourbons. Rye whiskey, which must be at least 51 percent rye to be so called, languishes, a fringe drink without a constituency.

Being original and marginal, though, is precisely what interests us in rye and may yet lead to its revival. And it has another advantage: huge character. Rye has the power of bourbon without the sweetness of the corn. Rye finishes dry rather than sugary; it doesn't cloy at the end. It's very drinkable. It does attack with guns blazing, though. Rye is to your average American whiskey what Laphroaig or Lagavulin are to most single-malt scotches (minus the smoke): powerhouse hooch. I would not draw a direct comparison between the flavor of rye bread and that of rye whiskey, but I do connect the intensity, the weight, the substantialness.

Herewith, six fine ryes—from light to strong—worthy of your attention.


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