Anyone that believes that all Whiskies are equal really hasn’t tried Rye.
Big, bold and a little bit spicy, Rye is very much a whiskey that takes no prisoners. It is the whiskey that you drink when you want that sense of excitement with a fascinating burn.
But does such a bold spirit make for good cocktails? Well, every bartender in the late 1800s and the very beginning of the 1900s, would most definitely say yes. In fact, if you asked for a whiskey cocktail in those days, you would more than likely be getting a Rye Whiskey cocktail.
Now not that we recommend that you always take the lead for your cocktail choices from late 19th century bartenders, but it could be reassuring to know that almost all the classic pre-Prohibition cocktails were originally designed with Rye in mind.
But the popularity of Rye as the whiskey of choice didn’t last long, the end of Prohibition also marked the end of the reign of Rye. Once repeal was brought in a couple of different factors conspired to Rye’s downfall but they all generally came back to the issue of cost.
One of the main points was that when Prohibition ended there was very little American made aged spirit left in the country and imports from Canada and Scotland were waiting at the borders to get in. The distilleries that had managed to survive America’s ‘great experiment’ or even those that were just starting to open, needed a quick and cheap way to get back into the market and, sadly, Rye was not it.
Rye was considered a more expensive spirit to produce as it is more difficult to process than other popular grains like corn. This point was not helped farmers who were choosing other grains to plant. The farm subsidies act of the late 1930s that the government had instituted to help farm recovery post-depression supported corn not rye.
So as America started to drink again, its taste moved towards Bourbon and the popularity of Rye slowly but surely declined over the next 70 years. Yet in the early 2000s things began to change.
As hipsters with their inclination towards artisanal products and heirloom varietals became fashionable and bartenders began exploring old recipes and rarely used spirits and liqueurs, the stage was set for Rye’s comeback.
Some have said that nothing represented the cocktail renaissance better than the story of the rise of Rye.
Although it was technically still being made, by the early 2000s, no-one wanted Rye. Then, almost overnight, a band of bartenders who wanted to recapture the history, the authenticity and let’s face it the cool factor of an arcane spirit began espousing its virtues to anyone who’d listen. .
And compared to other whiskies on the market, Rye certainly had its advantages. It was it’s typical high-proof and embodied both spice and dryness as part of its flavour profile. But as anyone who has experimented with cocktail making knows, it was probably the spirits ability to stand up to powerful vermouths and other big, bold flavours that truly set it apart.
So thanks to the golden age of cocktails, both the first time and more recently, there are a plethora of rye cocktails with which you can experiment. So when you get tempted by a Rye cocktail, think of the words of Ernest Hemingway “Never delay kissing a pretty girl or opening a bottle of whiskey”.