If you asked a bartender for rye a decade ago, chances are you'd just get a blank stare in return. In most parts of the country, the corner liquor store might have had a bottle or two of Old Overholt and maybe a yellow-label Jim Beam on the shelf, and, if so, they probably would have been pretty dusty, too.
That's all changed in recent years as bartenders, driven by explorations into old pre-Prohibition recipes, started using rye in more and more cocktails. Whiskey lovers have discovered that rye can be every bit as smooth a sipping spirit as bourbon, and America's distillers have responded, bringing out entire new lines of rye whiskeys to go alongside their bourbons.
A few weeks ago, I asked the members of the Charleston Brown Water Society, a whiskey-tasting group that includes bartenders and cooks from many of the top restaurants and bars in Charleston, along with food writers, liquor sellers, and a few other whiskey aficionados, for their recommendations for a few lesser-known bourbons that whiskey lovers should seek out. Considering the resurgence of rye whiskey on the drinking scene, it seems only fair to give that spirit equal time, too. Here are our picks for a few rye whiskeys that are worth tracking down.
"High West Double Rye (around $35) is my go-to for drinking at home," says Eric Doksa, a food and beverage writer for the Charleston City Paper. "It's pretty readily available, and it's affordable, too. Here you've got a young two year old whiskey--95% rye, 5% barley--blended with a 16 year old one that's 53% rye and 37% corn. It's got a lot of spice flavors, like cinnamon, licorice, anise, but the sweetness of the old whiskey balances the bite of the new. It's great with a few drops of water, but it's also my pick for classic cocktails like Manhattans and Sazeracs."
Chris Parise, a bartender at the Gin Joint in Charleston, uses a lot of rye whiskey in the bar's array of pre-Prohibition-style cocktails. One of his favorites is Smooth Ambler's Old Scout (around $37), a seven-year-old, 99 proof straight rye. "It's not the conventional rye," he says. "It's almost 100 proof, but it doesn't have the alcohol burn. There's a sweet light spice to it, but you don't get a lot of caramel flavor and you don't taste a lot of wood from the barrel, either." When it comes to serving Old Scout, Parise tends to stay on the simple side of things. "It stands up nicely in an Old Fashioned," he says, "but it's delicate enough that it's really nice by itself."
Over at the Bar at Husk, bartender Darryl Csicsila is a fan of the rye from Copper Fox Distillery (around $45). "It's made from two-thirds Virginia-grown rye," he says, "and a third Virginia malted barley that's dried in a kiln with apple and cherry wood smoke."
That unique mashbill and the smoke-tinged barley give it a flavor quite different than other ryes. "It's got a definite hazelnut taste," Csicsila says. "It's only 90 proof, but there's a lot of heat on it and a lot of pepper at the finish." This isn't one for cocktails, he adds. "I like to drink it with just a splash of water."
"I really dig Willett Rye," says Travis Hartong. He's the liquor manager for Bottles, a retailer that also supplies many of Charleston's top cocktail bars and restaurants, and he says they're selling a lot of rye whiskeys these days. "I think Willett [which sells for around $40 retail] is the most well rounded, versatile rye that's available to us. At 55 percent ABV [or 110 proof], Willett stands up great in cocktails. It's four years old, but it has maturity beyond its years and can very easily be enjoyed neat. Willett has fantastic spice, soft sweetness, and enough wood to mellow it all together." As for how he prefers to drink Willett, Hartong declares, "I like it neat."
As someone passionate about the history of American spirits, I am intrigued by the Old Portrero line from Anchor Distilling Company, which is a little hard to find but well worth seeking out. It was created by Fritz Maytag, the founder of San Francisco's Anchor Brewing, in an attempt to recreate the type of rye that was made by America's earliest whiskey distillers in the late colonial era.
Anchor's Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey (around $70) is made from a 100% rye mash that's distilled in small copper pot stills on San Francisco's Portrero Hill. It's aged less than two years in oak barrels that are lightly toasted instead of charred, since the charring of barrels wasn't introduced until well into the 19th century. It's called "18th Century Style Whiskey" because, according to Federal law, a spirit can't be sold as "rye whiskey" unless it's made from at least 51% rye and has been aged in new charred oak barrels. (Anchor also makes a version with the same spirits but aged longer in the proper barrels so it can legally be labeled a rye whiskey.)
The 18th Century version has a pale straw color, not the dark caramel shade we now expect of whiskey. It's smooth and dry, and it has a touch of raw wood to it. The Straight Rye Whiskey is much darker in appearance, with a honey-like sweetness as well as a dark earthiness to it that is not present in the 18th-century version. Drinking the two side by side is a great way to taste the effect that the charred barrel has on aged whiskeys, and it offers a little peek into American liquor history, too.