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Cocktail Hour: Rye Whiskey, Once Classic, Rises Again

The Spice of Life Cocktail by Chef Michael Symon, featuring Knob Creek rye whiskey.

You wouldn’t necessarily peg Cleveland native and “Iron Chef” Michael Symon as a rye whiskey guy, but just this summer he started promoting the rustic spirit at food and wine festivals around the country, starting in June with the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen.

That’s where Symon introduced a few new cocktails based on rye, working with Knob Creek, a small-batch bourbon specialist started by Jim Beam’s grandson, a sixth-generation Master Distiller.

Rye whiskey was once America’s favorite, around the time of the early 1900s. It was the basis for many famous drinks — the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned among them. Today’s partisans will differ on whether rye, bourbon or other kinds of whiskeys work best, but early cocktail books definitely call for the Manhattan to be made with rye, vermouth and bitters, adorned with a maraschino cherry or two. The Old Fashioned also calls for the rye to be mixed with bitters and maraschino cherries, with a sugar cube and a squeeze of lemon giving it an identity of its own.

But Prohibition changed rye’s fortunes as people discovered bourbon. Sweeter and stronger, bourbon gave them more illicit bang for their buck.

Pendulum shift from bourbon to rye whiskey

Today’s chefs and bartenders, with a taste for savory, even slightly bitter drinks, are drawn to the spicy, herbal flavors of rye, with its pronounced taste of aged oak. Rye is a hardy cereal grain, and unlike bourbon, which is made from corn, rye whiskey is derived from at least 51% rye. The rest of the grain mash may contain other types of grain, like wheat and barley, though many producers use 100% rye. Like other American whiskeys, rye is then aged two years (or more) in charred oak barrels.

In addition to the larger American whiskey houses such as Knob Creek (a division of Jim Beam), smaller producers are also getting into rye now.

Small-batch distillers of rye whiskey

Anchor Brewing in San Francisco was among the first, releasing Old Potrero Single Malt Rye Whiskey in 1996 looking back to the 19th century for step-by-step distillation inspiration, aging the whiskey in charred oak for three years for a mellower yet still spicy concoction.

Also look for Corsair Artisan Distillery’s Wry Moon from Nashville, Tenn., made in small batches and unaged so it will mix well for cocktails. Copper pot-distilled, it has rye’s distinctive peppery spiciness. Corsair also makes an aged 100% rye, double distilled and left to linger two-plus years in new charred oak, an intense expression for serious rye aficionados.

Rittenhouse is another great, small-batch distiller of rye, as are 1512 Spirits (Barbershop Rye) and High West, a distillery based in Park City, Utah, maker of Rendezvous Rye, a combination of 6-year-old and 16-year-old ryes, and Double Rye, another combo that mixes in corn mash as well, for a touch of sweetness. High West also makes Bourye, a rare blend of bourbon and rye in one bottle, and a 21-year-old Rocky Mountain Rye.

Knob Creek Spice of Life by Chef Michael Symon

Serves 1


4-5 fresh mint leaves

½ ounce white peach nectar

2½ ounces Knob Creek Rye

1 ounce ginger beer


1. Muddle mint, peach nectar and rye in the bottom of a shaker.

2. Add ice and shake vigorously.

3. Strain over ice and top with ginger beer.

Photo: Spice of Life cocktail, created by Michael Symon.  Credit: Courtesy of Knob Creek

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.

  • MiddKid 9·11·12

    Can’t forget WhistlePig Whiskey, the mother of all rye whiskeys. I bit the bullet, ponied up for a bottle, and I gotta admit, worth every penny!

  • Stephen Ryan 2·13·13

    After years of enjoying Knobb Creek rye, I will no longer buy it. The wax cover on the cap is easily removed but the wax cover on the neck of the bottle impedes the unscrewing of the cap and is very difficult to remove. Last night I cut myself with a knife removing the wax from the neck of the bottle. No more. My wife insists that I buy something else. This time she is right. Adios y buena suerte.

  • Virginie Boone 2·14·13

    That sounds terrible Stephen. No rye is worth injuring yourself over. Listen to your wife and instead try Ryemageddon from Corsair Distillery, made from malted and chocolate rye. Perfect for Valentine’s and any other day, wouldn’t you say?