December 13th, 2006

An ‘old-fashioned’ take on rye

Rittenhouse Straight 100-proof ryeOh no. Smell that? It’s the latest liquor trend: top-shelf rye whiskey. We’re talking $50, $100 bottles of the stuff that, if you ordered it in a bar a few years ago, you were probably an 80-year-old man drinking Canadian Club. In the average American bar, Canadian whiskey is what you get when you order rye, because U.S. rye distilleries dwindled and nearly died out in the decades following Prohibition.

“Now, though, in a turnabout, the prospects for rye have brightened considerably,” wrote the New York Times’ Eric Asimov late last month (All but Lost, Rye Is Revived As the Next Boutique Find). The article reviewed several ryes, at least half of which were between $65 and $140. “Fueled by the same sense of curiosity and geeky connoisseurship that gave birth to the microbrew industry, the single-malt avalanche and myriad small-batch bourbons, rye has been resurrected by whiskey lovers who want to preserve its singular, almost exotic essence.”

Oh crap.

Look, I’m one of those geeky connoisseurs. I used to be in the microbrew industry. I have six different kinds of bourbon in my house right now. And I admit my life changed a little the first time I tasted Van Winkle Family Reserve 13-year rye. That’s why I now have four different kinds of rye in my house, mingling with the bourbon bottles. But articles like this give me a sinking feeling. I mean, $140 rye? Who’s drinking this stuff? Maybe a handful of geeky connoisseurs, but mostly New York Times tasting panels and free-spending poseurs. And the worst thing is that prices are only going to skyrocket, because the good stuff is scarce.

Which brings me to Rittenhouse Straight 100-proof and Andy Kilgore. Rittenhouse Straight 100-proof (which actually made the NYT panel’s top 10) is a rye that can be purchased for under $20. Andy Kilgore is a bartender at Chez Henri who understands that rye is a traditionally rough spirit that resourceful bartenders of yore molded into cultured cocktails like the Algonquin and the Old-Fashioned. He demonstrated this to me and a few friends recently. First, he gave us a taste of Rittenhouse neat. Whoa! It made me want to pull out my six-shooter and walk 10 paces. Then he used it to mix “old-fashioned” Old-Fashioneds. Forget about the muddled maraschino cherry and orange slice, the big blast of soda water and the bourbon, he said. In a heavy rocks glass, he muddled Angostura and orange bitters with sugar and a bit of water, then added chilled Rittenhouse and finished the drink with flamed lemon peel. Oh my god, what a good drink. It was like the rye had donned a tuxedo and combed its hair. Isn’t it always the grizzled tough guy who looks hottest in a new suit, anyway?

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