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SUNDAY SERENDIPITY
01/02/2011
Sunday Serendipity
Rye Whiskey

By Stephen Eliot



It is without parallel or precedent in Europe, and it was the American whiskey of choice prior to the repeal of Prohibition. It was impossible to find more than a literal handful of bottlings a decade ago of which few if any might be regarded as quality stuff. Rye whiskey was a forgotten piece of the past, but it is now undergoing a real revival in interest as curious drinkers and craft distillers redefine what can only be called an American classic.

In the United States, “Rye Whiskey” is distilled from a mash made up of at least 51% rye, whereas Bourbon is principally born of corn, and, much like Bourbon, it is aged in new, charred-oak barrels. If allowed at least two years of barrel time, it can then be called “Straight Rye Whiskey”. Rye makes for a spicier, less-sweet spirit than corn, and, when given time in oak, shows remarkable complexity and richness. The finest efforts deserve being drunk neat and savored, but the spicy aspects of rye whiskey make it an interesting component of whiskey-based cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and the classic Manhattan.

Two recent bottlings of note appeared under my tree this holiday season, and both earn enthusiastic thumbs-up recommendation. The first, Rendezvous rye from High West Distillery, is blended and bottled by Utah’s first licensed distillery since the end of Prohibition. It is a wonderfully complex blend of six- and sixteen-year-old whiskeys whose uncommonly high percentage of rye, its creators proudly point out, far exceeds the legal 51% minimum, and there is no question but that is has a decided spiciness and depth all its own. It sells locally for between $45.00 and $50.00 a bottle, a price that is entirely fair for what comes across in the glass. My second surprise of the season, and one which will be enjoyed infrequently and in small doses, is the extraordinary Black Maple Hill 23-year-old Rye. It is, quite simply, one of the richest, most flavorful and singularly complex whiskies in my experience, and it is not one that I will be using in mixed drinks! It smacks of vanilla, new leather, dried oranges, maple sugar and a touch of tobacco, and, despite showing the polish of over two decades of aging, it still displays the wild spark and spice unique to good rye. It is not cheap at $125.00 to over $200.00 depending where found, and its finding is bound to take a bit of a search, but it is a compelling reminder that there are times when real art can be found in the distiller’s craft.

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