Rye whiskey, once the tipple of creaky old men who belted their pants nipple-high, is making a comeback among the young drinkers of Westchester. Spurred by a national fad for historic cocktails like the Sazerac and the Manhattan, both traditional and upstart distillers have been bottling oceans of rye, which, still, is being drunk so fast that the demand has outpaced the supply of aged product. According to Lew Bryson, managing editor at Whisky Advocate magazine (and writer of its American Spirit column), rye titan Rittenhouse ramped up from distilling its product two days per year in 2002 to 16 days in 2011. This “rye spike” has caught other large distillers by surprise: Wild Turkey rye is currently oversubscribed, with the giant producer claiming that it can’t accept new orders for its classic 101-proof rye until 2014. Recently, that distiller debuted an 80-proof rye to stretch its supply.
Rye whiskey has the booster charm of having been the traditional, regional distillation of Pennsylvania and New York State. Plus, those seeking to “drink local” will find cultish homegrown ryes to equal the quality of great bourbons and Scotches. A quick peek at the lists of Westchester’s on-trend bars tells the story. Once a rarity, now you’ll find that, of the 30 American whiskies on offer at Pour in Mount Kisco, eight are rye. At Birdsall House, the proportion is higher: Of nine American whiskeys, four are rye.
While each rye whiskey has its own personality, rye bears some unifying characteristics that separate it from its whiskey cousins. Rye is a big-flavored grain that leaves the resulting whiskey with a minty, peppery flavor. Yet, it’s a sharper, leaner drink than bourbon, a whiskey whose caramel and vanilla notes endear it with after-dinner swirlers. Rye’s spice and comparatively low price mean that it’s better poised to face the mixologists’s armament than many Scotches.
The “rye spike” has not eluded those trend-crazed beer geeks, who’ve already jumped on (and subsequently, off) the wheat, sour, super-hopped, high alcohol, and pumpkin beer trends. According to Joshua Bernstein, author of the book, Brewed Awakening (that tracks the American craft beer revolution), American craft brewing is “an industry of copycats.” Look for evidence of this on the shelves of Westchester’s beer stores. There, you’ll see scores of rye beers, many punning on the ingredient’s mutable single syllable, such as Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Rye of the Tiger.
But cute names and faddishness don’t affect the gustatory utility of rye beer. It’s a good friend to food, and its characteristic dryness lends what Bernstein calls “moreishness.” Simply put, rye beer’s crispness leaves you wanting more in a way that heavy, smokey, bitter, or sour beers don’t. According to Bernstein, if rye is brewed in an IPA or double IPA (both sweet, high-alcohol beers), it will dry the beer’s flavor slightly and give it some welcome sharpness.
Look for locally brewed rye beers from Captain Lawrence Brewing Company (High and Dry Rye Saison pilot batch), KelSo Beer Co. (Industrial IPA), and Sixpoint (Righteous Ale), though Bernstein especially recommends Harpoon Brewery’s Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA, Barrier Brewing’s Evil Giant IPA, and Blue Point’s RastafaRye. In whiskey, you’ll find two Hudson Valley distillers (Delaware Phoenix Distillery and Tuthilltown Spirits) producing noted rye whiskies, though Bryson suggests Dad’s Hat, Sazerac 18 year old, Knob Creek, and Michter’s.