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A Chevy, the Levee & Rye

It’s probably going to happen anyway, but if we can ignore it – together – we just might keep the current resurgence of rye whiskey drifting into insufferable douche-baggery.

It’s got all the elements, old-time Americana, humble origins and has been out of fashion for long time. A few of the more “craft” distillers are delving deep into heirloom varieties of rye, most nearly extinct until about a decade or so ago, to tinker with flavor profiles. To make matters even worse, some of this stuff is pretty good.

As someone who has been at least half-way connected to farming the idea of heirloom rye is a little strange. According to legend, George Washington invented rye whiskey, and you can’t get more American than that. In truth he didn’t, it wasn’t even Washington’s idea to become a distiller in his retirement. That was the brain child of his Scottish farm manager James Anderson. In colonial America, like Scotland, farming and distilling were never far apart.

Washington was an aristocrat, but land-rich and cash poor. In short, he was a tightwad. Crop rotation was a well-established farming technique. To prevent the nutrients in the soil from becoming exhausted by over farming, you let a field lay fallow for a season. Unplanted soil erodes easily, so to combat this, you plant covering crop that isn’t taxing on the soil, but prevents erosion. A common crop for this was rye which, before the invention of the Reuben sandwich, was thought to be inedible.

Anderson looked down and said, “This stuff is cheap and it’s all over the place. Let's make whiskey out of it.” Or words to that effect. Soon Mount Vernon was the largest distiller in the country.

Rye’s recent resurgence, though, has a lot to do with something else that George Washington knew nothing about: Cocktails. With so many craft cocktails flinging and squirting simple syrup around, the straight forward profile of rye plays well with all manner of fancy drinks. If you're a fan of the Old Fashioned, give rye a whirl, without Bourbon’s corn content the cloying sweetness is cut out of the equation.

On its own, with say an ice cube, this a clean sipper. I’m a fan of Old Forester, so when they introduced a rye expression in 2019, I was on board. Its content is 65% rye, 20% malted barley and a scant 15% corn. Within all that, there is a pepper bite, it isn’t heat but spice. With hints of the floral or citrus, but it’s surprisingly light. In the same Okay to drink on a Tuesday price point is Bulleit’s expression, made since 2011, made with 95% rye – and at that level, it doesn’t really matter what else is in it. Absolutely worth the money.

Leopold Brothers Three Chamber Bottled in Bond is a name that is making a big splash in rye’s hipster danger zone. It rings all the fashionable bells at 80% heirloom Abruzzi rye and 20% Leopold Brothers own malted barley. They even had a still built in a pre-prohibition design in order to make it process as old school as possible. And it is very good. It’s also $250 a bottle, so you do you.

To be clear, when Don Mclean sings about “them good ole boy’s were drinkin’ whiskey and rye” in American Piehe is not talking about Bobby Darin and the rest of the hep cats sucking down $250 bottle of anything.


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