second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary
bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at
Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live
music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great
night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he's on to a random
OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!
“Beer is for women, wine for men and rye is for heroes”–Bismarck
Even the utterance of the word “prohibition” is enough to curl me up like a dead spider,
dried and contorted with a blank stare and grimace on my face. This chapter in the history
of our great country had to be as painful and drawn out as disemboweling oneself with a
wooden spoon. Okay, maybe not THAT bad. However, if Vietnam was our ten-thousand-day war, then Prohibition had to be our five-thousand-day bore.
Depending on what book you read or whose version of the current cocktail history
revisionism you ascribe to, Prohibition either helped or hurt cocktail culture in the US.
I'm thinking it was a bit of both. There were some winners in the equation though.
Like the Mafia! Nice work Congress. The Mob as we know it was built on the rum and
booze runners of the Roaring 20's and without the Volstead Act none of this would have
There were some sad casualties though, not the least of which was the original American
spirit: rye whiskey. In the 1700's, from the frontier valleys of Pennsylvania to the
Maryland fields, rye grain grown was used to distill a distinctly American whiskey, drier
on the finish, less sour, more earth and spice. Hell, we almost even started a civil war
over it! What's more American than that? HA! Nothing! Just ask Glenn Beck.
For those of you that have never heard of the Whiskey Rebellion, it's a fascinating study
in agro-economics, tax law and the dynamics of drunken mobs. The Reader's Digest
version is as follows: Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, revenue
was needed to pay down the national debt. Then Secretary of the Treasury Alexander
Hamilton decided to raise the tax on whiskey in order to increase both government
revenue and promote the awareness of the dangers that would later be described as
causing “blear-eyed men and faded women to drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco,
engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon
themselves more degradation.” (Sign me up!)
It seems taxation was a touchy subject even after we kicked out the Brits. Local farmers
didn't take well to taxing their crops differently than if they had used the rye to bake or
feed cattle. On top of that, taxation hit local distillers more heavily than larger ones in
the East who could afford a “flat fee tax” that was cheaper per bottle but too expensive
for smaller operations to pay. So in 1794, 3,000 western Pennsylvania locals
revolted over the issue, prompting George Washington (himself a distiller of rye at Mount
Vernon) to lead almost 13,000 federal troops to march on Pittsburgh and “use a meat axe
to kill a spider” as Thomas Jefferson described it.
But with the start of Prohibition, and most importantly after it, rye whiskey withered on
the vine. The former is easy to explain, the latter not so much. Making rye whiskey is a
more involved process, so upon the resumption of commercial distilling most enterprises
went straight to making American whiskey or bourbon since it was quicker to produce.
On top of that Canadian whiskies, which have historically had more rye content, were
already available. Aside from a few exceptions, like Old Overholt (which Johnny
Sampson once wisely described as the Jameson of rye whiskies), few survived.
Old-timey ryes have (to me) always been a bit “thin,” “tinny,” and have sometimes
had a taste that reminds me of what Hussong's Cantina smells like. Smoke, leather
and turpentine. Not much to coat the palette, the flavor slides off the tongue like SoCal
into the Pacific after an earthquake. Also, oak barrel aging for rye was possibly a lucky
accident; in the days before railroad travel, the elixir was likely to sit in a barrel for a year
or two before it made it from western PA to Philly or Boston. Early rural ryes were likely
more akin to moonshine than the product we see today.
But in recent years, thanks to the foresight of a few distillers and the revival of
cocktail culture, this great American whiskey is back. The current version is probably
considerably different than the concoction of the 1700s but it is notable for its complexity
and uniqueness. Combine that with the fact that most true, early cocktails were meant to
be made with rye and you have a recipe for some serious beverage making.
Michter's Rye, produced on and off since 1753 in Amish country, is a good one. At 84
proof and complex, it grabs you by the nuts like Jack Daniels but feels bad about it and
leans in close for a whispered apology like Basil Hayden.
Templeton Rye shamelessly markets itself as the choice of Al Capone but despite that, it's
actually good hooch, with hints of a little pine and maybe mint.
Masterson's Rye is a great one too, although also marketed using the legacy of a dead
person. It's grainier, a bit more floral and distilled by a company owned by the Sebastiani
family–and they know alcohol.
Van Winkle is worth a taste, just complex enough and a well-balanced rye flavor, a bit of
dried cherry in there too.
High West! Double Barrel Redemption Rye is actually a bit much for me straight but
makes one hell of a Manhattan, too much rye even by my standards.
And Rittenhouse? At 100 proof, a perfect rye much like Wild Turkey is a perfect whiskey.
Hot but hides it well enough, a little rough for me though. It's won some medals so who
cares what I think.
Anchor Distilling's Old Portrero is masterful, beyond reproach actually. I'm biased for
sure to the brand but, in all honesty, it's the finest booze I've ever tasted–a bit of smoke,
spice and an almost cognac-like quality that is hard to describe. I'd talk about it more but
I'm saving it for another time!
And what to make with rye? My favorite is from a 1949 Esquire magazine cocktail book,
the Floridita Special. Situated somewhere in between a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and
a Sidecar, it's a nice blend of rye, Amer Picon, vermouth and dry curaçao. I perhaps sing
the praises of the Crosby too much, but generally it's for the food. In this case it's for
their concoction, the Fancy Free. A simple mix of rye and two kinds of bitters it's a
straightforward drink with just enough citrus to take the edge off.
Welcome back rye! And most of all welcome to OC. It seems that more and more
places have a few bottles on their back bar and some have quite a selection. Next time
you jump right into ordering your usual whiskey drink take a little side trip to rye-ville,
you won't be sorry.