single malt whiskey

The Rye Stuff

This story was originally published in Penthouse. Go on, the link is safe for work!

For much of the past century, rye whis key has been the redheaded stepchild of America’s brown-spirits clan, as attention and accolades were showered upon corn-based bourbon and its signature smoothness and sweetness.

But rye whiskey is made with at least 51 percent rye, a hearty, resilient grain that gives the spirit a lean, peppery profile and a crisp, palate drying character. It’s as if bourbon decided to go punk rock. However, rye whiskey’s birth dates back to an era long before the Ramones. It gained in popularity after the American Revolution, when imports of molasses (the raw ingredient for rum, which was then America’s favored spirit) became expensive or erratic. Looking to fill the boozy void, intrepid Irish and Scottish settlers—and even George Washington—distilled whiskey made from the bountiful fields of rye. The spicy, aromatic spirit caught on, and over the next 150 years it became the nation’s dominant distilled inebriant, making its home in iconic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Sazerac.

Post-Prohibition, few rye distilleries reopened, and American tastes changed from rough-and-tumble rye to lighter spirits. But in the past decade, rye has begun its slow, spicy climb upward. Credit goes to bartenders, who began unearthing and re-creating vintage recipes.

While excellent old-guard brands such as the rich and peppery 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye, and the dry, lightly spicy Old Overholt never ceased pro duction, the framework of the modern rye resurgence was laid in 1996, when Anchor Distilling Company debuted its liquid time machine: Old Potrero single malt whiskey, which re-creates an eighteenth-century spirit that Washington might’ve been proud to distill. The secret is aging the all-rye spirit in oak barrels that are lightly toasted, not charred to a crisp. But be careful when sipping Potrero: It’s bottled without being diluted, so you’ll need to add a dollop of water or an ice cube to open up the vibrant, spicy flavor. (The distillery also offers a nineteenth-century version, which is aged in charred-oak barrels. You’ll taste spicy flavors, and a bit of the charred intensity as well.)

Nowadays, “The rye category has exploded,” says Bill Owens, the president of the American Distilling Institute. In Iowa, the balanced, butterscotch-kissed Templeton Rye is crafted according to a recipe dating back to the Prohibition era. Utah’s High West marries two-yearold and 16-year-old ryes to create its smooth, cinnamon-accented Double Rye. Chicago’s Koval Distillery crafts the Lion’s Pride Organic rye whiskey, which is made with 100 percent rye grain and aged in either lightly toasted or heavily charred new American-oak barrels.

While small-batch rye whiskey can be revelatory, those relatively rare bottles can require loads of leg work to uncover. For a worthy, widely available alter native, try Knob Creek’s newly released, 100-proof rye whiskey version. It’s a warming wonder, with a dry, herbal character and plenty of spice to boot. Bulleit Rye checks in at 90 proof, trading boozy oomph for a luscious mouthfeel, notes of cherries, and a lovely, lingering pep pery spice. Then there’s the curiously appealing Tap 357. The Canadian-born rye whiskey (it’s made with a lower percentage of the grain than its American counterparts) is blended with maple syrup harvested in Quebec, resulting in a smooth, layered flavor that’s somewhat akin to drinking breakfast. Like its fellow whiskeys, this is rye reenvisioned.

Whiskey, It's Time You Met Beer

It starts life as beer! Sort of. Credit: A Decadent Existence

Whiskey and beer have long embraced a special kinship. At bars, a bolt of the brown stuff is often served with a cool can of beer, a one-two punch that leads to long nights and achy mornings after.

Yet there’s more to this coupling than the promise of pleasure and, occasionally, pain. Whiskey begins life as a distiller’s beer, or wash, that’s made with malted barley, water and yeast. The difference is that beer is given a dose of hops, which contributes bitterness. Wash traditionally lacks hops, meaning it’s a raw ingredient. Translation: You do not want to drink un-hopped wash.

Another crucial distinction is that distilleries are concerned about starch conversion — unlocking the sugar in grains to create the most alcohol possible. Contrasting that, craft brewers use the available grain palette, not caring that darker-roasted grains offer fewer fermentable sugars. It’s all a tradeoff for flavor. This means that whiskey and bourbon require a slumber in charred oak barrels to transform the rough-edged white dog into a smooth sipping spirit.

But in recent years, brewers have begun pulling double duty as distillers, and distillers have begun relying on brewers’ tricks of the trade. For example, New Holland Brewing (Holland, MI) offers a line of beer-inspired brewers whiskeys, and Kentucky’s Corsair brews imperial stouts that are distilled and run through a hop-stuffed distillation column. On the other hand, California’s Charbay Winery & Distillery distills Bear Republic’s bottle-ready Racer 5 IPA, while Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery turns its aromatic Hitachino Nest White Ale into Kiuchi No Shizuku. Here are five of my favorite spirits blurring the line between beer and booze.

St. George Spirits Single Malt Whiskey Sierra Nevada supplies the Bay Area’s St. George with a smoky, caramel-licked ale, which is distilled down and aged in a mixture of bourbon, port, French oak and sherry casks. The blended result is beautifully smooth and fruity, featuring notes of nuts, vanilla and chocolate.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey Situated in San Antonio, the self-proclaimed “brewstillery” has devised a nontraditional Texas-style bourbon made with a measure of rye. While the big-barrel release is still aging, Ranger Creek has released this bold, small-barrel version with a spicy bite and sweet flavors of caramel and maple syrup.

New Holland Artisan Spirits Brewers’ Whiskey Double Down Barley The Michigan spirits makers use 100 percent two-row barley (the preferred brewing grain) to concoct this small-batch delight that’s double distilled, then sent into heavily charred American oak. There’s a nose of fresh, woody oak and rich flavors that dart from toffee to dark fruits.

Charbay Winery & Distillery Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey One of our favorite bitter beers is Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA, a citrusy, pine-laced pleasure usually at home in our fridge. So imagine our excitement when Charbay used its as the base for this unaged whiskey chockfull of green, herbal notes and a sweetly floral complexity.

Kiuchi Brewery Kiuchi No Shizuku Kiuchi’s Hitachino Nest White Ale is a killer witbier spiced with coriander, orange peel, nutmeg and even orange juice. Distilled and aged in oak, Kiuchi No Shizuku (its name means first drip from the distillation kettle) calls to mind coriander and citrus, with a sweet, slightly woody finish.

This story was originally published on Food Republic.