Rye whiskey offers spice and everything nice for the holidays

Rye whiskey is conducive to making rich, cold-weather cocktails, such as a red hook. Krista Slater for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Krista Slater

Credit: Krista Slater

Rye whiskey is conducive to making rich, cold-weather cocktails, such as a red hook. Krista Slater for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Mr. Draper drinks rye.”

Fans of “Mad Men” may remember that line from the show’s 2007 premiere episode, when Joan teaches newly hired fellow secretary Peggy about office life at a high-pressure 1960s advertising firm.

In 1960, the time period in which that first series was set, rye whiskey already was starting to fall out of favor and lose market share to vodka. By the 1980s, rye was considered old-fashioned and uncool. That changed during the cocktail renaissance of the early 2000s, when bartenders sought the ingredients that they read about in pre-Prohibition cocktail books. They needed rye whiskey to make a historically accurate Manhattan or sazerac — yet few brands remained on the market.

Rye whiskey, a uniquely American spirit, is subject to the same federal rules of classification as bourbon — including specific distillation proofs and aging in new charred oak barrels — with one difference. Where bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in the mash, rye whiskey must have at least 51% rye in the grain profile.

Agriculturally, the rye grain took to the soil of the New World better than barley, which is what early Scottish and Irish settlers would have used to make spirits. Because rye is frost-resistant, the crop could stand the cooler climates of the Northeast. So, while folks in Kentucky and the Midwest were growing warmer-climate corn and producing bourbon, people in chilly New York and, to a greater degree, Pennsylvania, were making whiskey out of rye.

With increased production in places like Pittsburgh, the spirit was floated down the Monongahela River, to the Ohio, then the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans. This style of whiskey became so popular that it eventually replaced French cognac as the spirit of choice in New Orleans, especially in that city’s official cocktail, the sazerac.

As for the flavor of rye whiskey, it helps to think in terms of bread making. Just as rye bread is hearty, with spicy characteristics when compared with lighter, sweeter cornbread, so rye whiskey offers lean, baking-spice notes, compared with full-bodied bourbon.

This drier style of whiskey is conducive to making cocktails with rich ingredients, such as sweet vermouth or maraschino liqueur. One of our favorite rye cocktails, especially during the holidays, is a red hook. It’s a Manhattan variation, with extra spice and bitterness from the Punt e Mes vermouth, and cherry and marzipan notes from Luxardo maraschino liqueur.

We keep High West Distillery double rye on the bar cart. It is as delicious in this cocktail as it is over ice, and is readily available.

The Slaters are beverage industry veterans and the proprietors of the Expat and Lark Winespace in Athens.

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