There are endless cocktails in the world, and new ones invented every day, but how many of these drinks are true essentials? In this series, we're discussing drinks everyone should know—five essential drinks for every major category of spirits.
This week, we tackle rye whiskey. Rye is, after rum, among the first New World spirits, and the first whiskey distilled in North America. George Washington made rye at Mt. Vernon, and by the time of Prohibition, rye was the primary whiskey used for cocktails. Most rye distilleries never reopened after Prohibition, in part due to the Great Experiment, and in part thanks to the changing American palate, which grew to prefer lighter spirits and blended whiskeys. The rise of single-malt scotch whisky in the 1980s and 1990s, and the subsequent growth of small-batch bourbons, have led in the last five years to a growing market for rye. Thanks to its spicy and rich flavor profile, bartenders love rye for its versatility and mixability. You'll find that rye matches up well with a host of other ingredients.
My choices may seem somewhat arbitrary and even capricious. I'll probably even leave out one of your favorites. But that's the beauty of conversation, so please let me know what I'm missing!
My interest in cocktails dates back about ten years, but I have to say, it nearly died in the womb.
I was out one night with friends from my grad-school program, and we were ordering drinks. On a whim I ordered a Manhattan. My friend Catherine scoffed: "Isn't that an old man's drink?!" I tasted mine when it arrived and hated it. I never tried another one for years.
Now I know why: the drink was made with bourbon, was shaken with watery ice, and lacked bitters. It came to the table frothy and tasting like overly sweet, watery bourbon.
The Manhattan seems like a simple cocktail—whiskey, vermouth, and bitters—but when you examine it, there's a lot going on inside it: the herbal flavorings in the vermouth and bitters need a strong main spirit to counter them. Rye is that spirit, and not just for historical reasons. The corn and wheat that form the flavors of most bourbons simply don't allow the spirit to marry well with the other ingredients. Sure, you can take a strongly flavored bourbon and make a decent Manhattan, but to really do it up right, you need rye.
Hop the East River and try the next essential, the Brooklyn.
Now, I'm playing a bit of a game with you here, I have to confess. I'm not sure the Brooklyn itself is an essential cocktail. I mean, it's a lovely drink. You'd at first think that dry vermouth wouldn't pair well with rye, but what makes the drink work is the Amer Picon (or Ramazzotti, if you can't find Amer Picon—which to be honest, you probably can't). Amer Picon is an amaro, one of a class of bitter liqueurs that tend to pair favorably with the richness of rye.
But what makes the Brooklyn essential is its place in a certain cocktail family. The Brooklyn is a descendant of the "perfect" Manhattan, a drink made with rye, equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, and bitters. The amaro takes the role of the sweet vermouth, while adding a bitterness not found in sweet vermouth. But even that's not the interesting part of the Brooklyn's story. What makes it essential is the role it plays in encouraging cocktail innovation.
For a while there, it seemed you couldn't enter a craft-cocktail bar in New York City (or elsewhere, for that matter) without encountering a drink inspired by the Brooklyn, most of them named for such neighborhoods as Cobble Hill, Park Slope, and Red Hook.
So what makes the Brooklyn essential is the drinks it's inspired: try the original, certainly, but also tinker around with its children. I think you'll quickly find a new favorite somewhere in Brooklyn's neighborhoods.
The New Orleans classic. The Sazerac was originally made from cognac, but for somewhat murky reasons (some blame the phylloxera infestation that nearly wiped out the French wine industry in the nineteenth century), the recipe switched to rye whiskey. I've tried versions with cognac and version with rye, and although the brandy variation is tasty, the drink is simply better with rye.
Part of the fun of writing this column is introducing such little-known but still essential cocktails such as the Diamondback, a cocktail that comes to us from Baltimore via Seattle. I've written elsewhere about the Diamondback; it's simply one of my favorite cocktails and a beautiful showcase for rye's unique spicy qualities.
Yes, this is a repeat from my bourbon entry, but there's a great reason for it. A rye Old Fashioned is a sublime cocktail.
What's your favorite rye-based drink? Any other essentials you think should be added to this list?