Rye is popular again

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Its cachet has been on the rise for more than a year now, boosted, among other things, by notice from trendsetting publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Esquire magazine.

You meanwhile may have been under the impression that Western Pennsylvania's rye distillers floated down the Ohio River following the 1790s Whiskey Rebellion, giving rise to Kentucky's corn bourbon tradition.

Here's the problem with that story: Most booze historians say it's not exactly true.

For decades after the rebellion, well into the 1800s, whiskey production here boomed, and we began making such a splendid variety of the stuff that they named it after the river that gave it life: Monongahela rye.

In 1810, while Kentucky produced 2.2 million gallons of primarily corn bourbon, Pennsylvania shipped 6.5 million gallons of distilled spirits, mostly Monongahela rye.

Old Overholt was born in Westmoreland County. The old Israel Shreve distillery still stands in Perryopolis, on a property once owned by George Washington; the original Michter's distillery was built in Pennsylvania Amish country and operated until 20 years ago.

It all would make for a nice little history trail, wouldn't it?

John Lipman and his wife, Linda -- Pennsylvania natives now living in Ohio -- have trekked this trail, giving themselves a self-guided tour of the state's old distilleries.

"Whiskey history and United States history are so intertwined," he said. From the early slave trade to the Whiskey Rebellion to Prohibition, whiskey was there, playing a role.

Mon rye, he said, may have gained its reputation by accident. In post-colonial times, whiskey was often imbibed soon after it was distilled. But Western Pennsylvania rye that was shipped back to the East was forced to age in its barrels.

"Say it came off the still in Greensburg. It sat there in a warehouse for a season, then it went back over the mountains, then it's sold in Carlisle," says Lipman. "By the time it got to Philly, it was barrel-aged," having sloshed around for maybe a year or two.

"By the 1830s, when the trains and steamboats came, a journey that might have taken two years took two days," and distillers began storing their spirits on purpose, Lipman surmised. Aged rye was born.

Rye today is an earthy, smoky, peppery brand of American whiskey that can trace its roots not only to Western Pennsylvania and but to spots in Maryland.

You make rye, as the name implies, with rye grain (instead of corn, wheat or barley), mashing it up and fermenting it in oak barrels. We made it here because rye, the grain, is tolerant of acidic soil and cool weather, unlike wheat. The charred oak barrels are a Western Pennsylvania flourish, separating our stuff from the whiskey made by farmers tending the land between Allentown and Philadelphia.

So what killed our Pennsylvania rye? And rye in general?

"Largely, Prohibition," said Lew Bryson, managing editor of Malt Advocate whiskey magazine. He's a Pennsylvania native, and he pursued his graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

"Rye is a bit more difficult to make. It's more expensive to make."

If you had to get up and running immediately after Prohibition was repealed, "you'd probably do bourbon first," he said.

Additionally, American rye was displaced by Canadian rye, and it gained a reputation as drink for those who want to get drunk, fast.

In Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend," the protagonist resorts to begging for rye across his four-day bender:

"Two bottles of rye. The cheapest. None of that twelve-year-old, aged-in-the-wood chichi."

"That's the kind of rap rye got, unfortunately," Mr. Bryson said. Not that it was unwarranted: "For 25 to 30 years, rye tasted like crap."

But now there are more varieties of rye available today than there were a year ago, says freelance spirits writer Paul Clarke.

Niche spirits go through cycles -- they have a peak, then they disappear for a while, then folks get curious about them again.

"There have been lots of things that have faded from service over the years," he said. "I think there's always going to be an interest in things that are difficult to obtain."

Rye was one of those things. It was, as Mr. Clarke put it, the "secret handshake of the liquorati."

The exceptions were a few brands such as Old Overholt, Wild Turkey and the ubiquitous Jim Beam rye, which dominate the U.S. market, along with the Canadian "ryes" (they aren't American-style ryes, which require at least half of the mash to come from rye grain).

But now you can find a couple of Michter's varieties, Rittenhouse, Sazerac, and Pennsylvania's state stores can even special-order Mr. Clarke's favorite, Black Maple Hill, which bottles an 18-year and a 23-year-old rye and keeps its source distillers a secret.

"This whiskey was so good it made me downright emotional," he said after a tasting.

Best Mr. Clarke can tell, rye's turnaround officially began a year ago when Heaven Hill Distillery's Rittenhouse bottled-in-bond rye (meaningit has the U.S. government seal of approval) won top North American whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

"It's one of the most prestigious awards, beating out all these high-end bourbons," said Mr. Clarke, who calls Rittenhouse a "rock star" now. Obviously, 18-year-old rye isn't made overnight, and distributors are burning through older rye that has been sitting in warehouses, unsold, for a decade or more.

Bar managers want to stock it on their shelves, but they can't keep it there once rye geeks find out about it. Then it's hard to find new bottles.

"I think I got the last seven bottles of the Hirsch 13-year-old left in the country," said George Costa, manager of the Southwark bar in Philadelphia.

He says, without exaggeration, that he's personally responsible for getting a half-dozen rye lines available in Pennsylvania, after badgering the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to buy them. He's amassed a collection of more than a dozen ryes at his bar, and hopes to add a few more before the old batches start to run out.

"I do think it's going to be difficult to get the aged ryes. When those are gone, you're not going to see them for a few more years."

So if you like whiskey, but find yourself stuck in a Scotch or bourbon rut, buy a bottle of the rye.

Pour a glass, over ice if you want. Have a sniff -- it's like putting your head in a cedar chest, or a cigar humidor.

Then drink up, while you have the chance.


MANHATTAN

  • 2 parts rye
  • 1 part sweet vermouth
  • Dash of bitters

Mix the three ingredients in a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.


SAZERAC

Related information

You can visit the former Old Overholt distillery, part of the West Overton Museums, which just opened for the season in Scottdale, Westmoreland County. For details, visit www.westoverton.org.

 
  • 2 teaspoons Pernod
  • 1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
  • Dash bitters
  • 2 ounces rye

Coat an old fashioned glass with the Pernod or another Absinthe substitute, leaving a puddle in the bottom of the glass. Add bitters and syrup, then the rye. Garnish with a lemon twist.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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