Bourbon vs. Rye
It’s been a knock-down, drag-out bout. Among the world’s great whiskies, two contenders hail from the U.S.: bourbon and rye. For centuries rye was the champ, but Prohibition dealt it a hard blow, and for decades it appeared down for the count. That’s when bourbon claimed the title of the American whiskey. Recently, though, rye’s proved to be a “comeback kid,” and the brawl ain’t over yet. Here’s hoping it ends in a punch-drunk draw.
The brave men of the American frontier got loaded a lot, and the firewater that fired them up was whiskey—specifically whiskey made from rye. Whiskey was important to the economy of the early frontier: Farmers distilled their own supply, and whiskey was used as currency in cash-poor communities. When a federal tax on whiskey was enacted to pay off Revolutionary War debt, the backlash set off the first serious domestic challenge to the fledgling U.S. government. In what came to be called the Whiskey Rebellion, farmers in western Pennsylvania (then the frontier) revolted against tax collectors. The situation became so serious that in 1794 President George Washington—who himself distilled rye at his Mount Vernon plantation—led an army of 13,000 men across Pennsylvania to quash the upstarts.
Rye was the predominant grain in most whiskey made in America from colonial times up until Prohibition. Rye’s popularity plummeted after Prohibition, partly because those who’d continued to imbibe during America’s dry years had developed a taste for the milder blended whiskies smuggled in from Canada. Rye was now seen as an “old man’s drink”—or, worse, as the hooch of choice among incorrigible tipplers.
Just a few years ago it was nearly impossible to find any rye on offer at bars or liquor stores. But the revival of serious cocktail culture has summoned rye back into fashion, and whiskey lovers can now enjoy a widening range of ryes produced by big distillers and small, artisanal makers—the latter including a new distilling operation that uses 18th-century methods at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
For a whiskey to qualify as rye, at least 51 percent of the grain in the mash must be rye. The result is a whiskey that’s noticeably drier (i.e., less sweet) and subtly spicier than bourbon, whose sweetness derives from the predominance of corn in its mash. Rye’s dryness and subtlety make it, in the opinion of many, a better base than bourbon for whiskey cocktails such as the old-fashioned and the manhattan, and their original recipes called for rye. And one of America’s most sublime cocktails—the New Orleans libation called the sazerac—cannot properly be made with any whiskey other than rye. When you’re in NOLA, be sure to knock one back at the French 75 Bar at Arnaud’s restaurant, on Bienville Street in the French Quarter.
Legend has it the manhattan cocktail was invented in 1874 by a bartender at New York City’s Manhattan Club for a party hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother. Although the manhattan was probably created at that eponymous club, and possibly that very year, Lady Churchill—a social-climbing young woman born Jeanette Jerome in Brooklyn—was not in attendance. She was pregnant with the future prime minister and off in Europe at the time.
What a shame, since the manhattan is certainly worthy of association with that scintillating American “lady.” While married to Lord Churchill, Jennie carried on a dalliance with King Edward VII, and then, after Churchill’s death, twice married men much younger than herself. She died at 67, falling down a flight of stairs while breaking in a new pair of high heels.
What isn’t in doubt is the kind of whiskey used in the original manhattan recipe: rye. Today the cocktail is more likely to be made with bourbon or Canadian blended whisky. If you hanker for a manhattan-like cocktail made with rye, order the revamped, rye-based “brooklyn”—and raise a toast to that borough’s own Jennie Jerome!
How come the best-known American whiskey bears the appellation of a French monarchical dynasty? Well, the whiskey we call bourbon may have originated in and around Bourbon County, Kentucky, which, before Kentucky became a state, had been part of Virginia and, before that, of the French territory of Louisiana—named, of course, for the Bourbon king, Louis XIV. A town called—what else?—Paris is the county seat of Bourbon County, in which no bourbon is now made, because Prohibition killed off the local distilling industry. The rumor that Bourbon County remains a dry one is, however, untrue.
Kentucky—which when it attained statehood in 1792 had only about 100,000 people but more than 2,000 distilleries!—still produces the vast majority of the world’s bourbon, now defined not by its place of origin but by the grain content of its mash: between 51 and 80 percent corn. Most bourbon is made following a sour mash process using some yeast from a previous fermentation, then aged in new, charred oak barrels, which lend distinctive vanilla or caramel flavors. Already good, American bourbons have been getting even better, with several high-quality small-batch and single-barrel bourbons on the market.
If you’re making a cocktail from scotch—a rob roy, say, or a rusty nail—it’s wise to choose an innocuous blended scotch, since the peaty, smoky taste of a single malt is likely to obscure the other ingredients’ flavors. The opposite is true, however, if bourbon’s your preferred mixological poison. Strong flavor tends to enhance bourbon-based cocktails such as the old-fashioned, the mint julep and the manhattan. You’ll do well to choose a robust small-batch or single-barrel bourbon—Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek or any of the many others now available.
The list of truly superlative cocktails is very short, and virtually all of them are exquisitely simple concoctions. (Note: The list does not include those multi-ingredient margaritas and daiquiris served up at your neighborhood Tex-Mex joint.) The classic martini—gin, a little dry vermouth and an olive or lemon twist for garnish—is simplicity itself, and the manhattan is only slightly less minimalist. Here’s a recipe:
2 ounces bourbon
3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
1/4 teaspoon maraschino cherry syrup (from the jar)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass, with ice. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the cherry.
Whiskey making’s pretty simple: you mash (i.e., steep) grain in hot water and ferment the resulting liquid to make a “beer,” then simmer the beer in a still to extract the alcohol. With the right equipment, you can do it yourself. Trouble is, if you do it without a license—and without paying the applicable taxes—you’re breaking the law. This hasn’t stopped generations of DIYers throughout Appalachia from making moonshine. The term denotes illegal liquor made “by the light of the moon” to prevent detection, and hillbilly moonshiners are the spiritual and, in some cases, biological descendants of the tax evaders of 1794’s Whiskey Rebellion. The feds are still hunting them down.
Legal whiskey is mostly brown, acquiring the color when aged in barrels. Most moonshine—a.k.a. “white lightning”—is raw whiskey straight from the still, colorless and more potent than legal whiskey, which, unlike moonshine, is watered down after distillation. The “spring tonic” made by Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies was barely potable; well-made moonshine can, however, be tasty, since raw whiskey retains a grain flavor that dissipates during aging. To experience that taste legally, try one of the “white dog” (raw) whiskies on offer from numerous commercial micro-distillers.