The recent rebirth of straight rye whiskey can be traced back to a modest wish: the desire to make a traditional Manhattan. During the first golden age of the cocktail, in the late 1800s, the Manhattan and many other whiskey drinks generally called for rye. But, over the last century, the spirit has been replaced and eclipsed by another famous liquor: bourbon.
Modern bartenders, however—as they combed through vintage drinks books in search of recipes and intel on how things tasted before Prohibition—discovered rye-centric recipes and were eager to try them. Why all the bother? Rye has a signature spicy note that balances beautifully with sweet vermouth and other key cocktail ingredients.
There was just one small problem: By the early 2000s, barely anyone was making rye and even fewer people were drinking it. Imbibers had largely forgotten the old-fashioned liquor, which had been America’s first love (George Washington even made the stuff). The category was on life support; a handful of Kentucky distillers producing the spirit just one day a week was enough to satisfy the meager demand. But bartenders (a determined lot) were undeterred and a number of distillers were also curious about the spirit.
Rye is a tough grain to work with. It is sticky when wet and hard like cement when dry. During fermentation it can fill a distillery with rivers of foam. So it is no surprise that distillers chose to produce bourbon, which is comparatively much easier to make. Fortunately—after numerous experiments, copious research and many late nights—the keys to producing rye whiskey have been rediscovered.
And, thanks to the Manhattan and the resurgence of American whiskey in general, straight rye has come back to life.
While the liquor was traditionally produced in the Mid-Atlantic states and the northeast and later in Kentucky, its recent success has led distillers from across the United States to get in on the act. These upstarts are not only producing the spirit, but also giving it their own spin, using special types of barrels and interesting mash bills (the mix of grains) and even experimenting with different strains of rye. Drinkers are also rediscovering the joys of rye whiskey made across the border in Canada, which has its own long and rich history of producing the liquor.
The newfound popularity has introduced a new set of problems. For many brands, demand has outstripped supply, leaving them scrambling to produce and age as much whiskey as possible. They have also turned to an international army of farmers to grow rye grain.
But rye drinkers have a lot to be happy about. Rye cocktails, including Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs and Old Pals, now dominate menus in many craft cocktail bars. My suggestion? Fix a drink and toast to rye’s comeback.
2 oz Lot 40 Canadian Rye Whisky1 oz Sweet vermouth2 dashes Bitters
Garnish: Cherry or lemon twist
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir, and strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry or a lemon twist.