Cast as an alternative to bourbon and in famously short supply, rye whiskey has become the “it” drink for American whiskey geeks of late. I serve it all the time at Cantina, the bar I tend once a week in San Francisco.
Rye has a mystique. It was the original American whiskey, distilled on the East Coast before the warmer corn country was much populated. Consequently, famous cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan — most commonly made with bourbon today — all would have originally been rye-based, we are told. So cocktail purists and whiskey geeks come to the bar and suddenly want all their drinks made with rye.
This is not a bad thing. I like rye whiskey and am happy that it is back. However, the flavor distinction that people make between rye and bourbon is false. Lots of people — I’m one — ask for rye because they want something less “sweet” than bourbon. Rye is purported to be a spicy spirit, savory and sharp, as opposed to bourbon, which is round, soft and sweet with vanillin and fruit. But the truth is, labels don’t mean a whiskey will match those flavor profiles. A whiskey’s flavors are far more dependent on other factors in the murky world of Kentucky distillers.
Murky? Well, things would be clearer if distillers would offer details about the composition of their mashbills (how much of each grain — corn, rye, barley, wheat, etc. — makes up the mash that is fermented and distilled), but they don’t. The most they say is the maddening refrain, “our bourbon is at least 51 percent corn and our rye is at least 51 percent rye,” which are the legal requirements for each spirit. One person who bucks the trend is Tom Bulleit of Bulleit bourbon, who freely admits that his formula is roughly two-thirds corn and one-third rye, giving it one of the highest rye contents of any bourbon.
But even the mashbill wouldn’t tell you everything. Proprietary yeast strains, the cuts made during distillation, barrel programs and details of filtration and dilution probably have the greatest impact on flavor.
Other things that we assume about rye and bourbon are simply not clear-cut. Celebrated master distiller Parker Beam of Heaven Hill distilleries told me that he finds rye fruitier and sweeter out of the still than corn. “Most people would think it’s the other way around.” He also says that rye is much harder to distill — it’s gummy and tends to foam up. Mixing it with corn and distilling it at corn’s lower temperature makes a more manageable and balanced mash.
The long and short of it is that if you’re looking for pure flavor profile, the simple rye-bourbon dichotomy is not enough. “It’s too complicated to make those distinctions,” admits Buffalo Trace’s director of quality, Drew Mayville. “There are much bigger swings in the bourbon category than there are between bourbon and rye,” says Neyah White, the head barman at San Francisco’s Nopa, who has spent a great deal of time studying whiskey. “My sense is that in Kentucky, they know how to make bourbon, but that they don’t yet have a great sense of rye.”
One definitive thing that the 100 percent rye whiskeys like Old Potrero and Tuttletown are showing us without question is that pure rye is a rougher, edgier spirit than its corn-based cousins. It’s less silky and more a shot to the jaw. And because of that, I think it takes to wood differently than bourbons. I get turned off by ryes that express too much of the vanilla sweetness, dill and coconut flavors that are imparted by some of the high-toast American oak barrels used in Kentucky. It just seems to clash with rye’s fruit and high-toned sharpness.
So when I’m looking for a spicy, savory American whiskey, I don’t knee-jerk opt for rye. Wild Turkey’s bourbon has a more savory flavor profile than Wild Turkey’s rye or its Russell’s Reserve rye, both of which express more vanilla sweetness. I find Bulleit bourbon to be more dusky than (ri)1, a fashionable new rye product. Woodford Reserve bourbon has less vanillin and bright fruit than Michter’s rye.
Perhaps the rye that most perfectly captures that dark core of berry fruit, lots of baking spices, and a burnished toastiness that the rye category has been made out to be is Thomas H. Handy, the world’s first single-barrel rye. This whiskey is the same as the Sazerac 6-year-old rye, but it’s uncut and unfiltered and bottled from single, highly selected barrels. It shows how much dilution, filtration and individual barrel selection (no two barrels are ever the same) influence a spirit.
Much of what we think we know about whiskeys proves to be unprovable. One can’t apply rules, but must simply go brand by brand, tasting thoroughly and thoughtfully. I can think of worse things to do.