It may seem like a broad category with all of the different styles made throughout the world, but once you understand the basic steps of production, whiskey isn't so hard to understand. In fact, knowing even a little about how it's made or where it comes from should help you recognize the different characteristics that transform its flavor and what you should expect when trying different styles.
Before prohibition, when a customer asked for "rye", everyone knew what to pour. Today, many Americans would mistake this for a piece of bread. It's no wonder there is confusion—whiskey has many different names. Whether you drink rye, bourbon or Scotch, Irish versus Canadian, blended or single-malt—all whiskey is basically the same product. But I would incite feverish debate (if not downright war) to foolishly claim they all taste the same. Subtle differences in the grain used, the barrel aging, the origin, the type of distillation and even the water can have a tremendous impact on the resulting flavor. Many of these factors even have legal implications on how the bottle can be labeled.
Those of you who followed my Kentucky bourbon tour might remember that whiskey in all of it's forms is essentially fermented grain (beer) that undergoes one or more distillation cycles to capture and concentrate the alcohol. This alcohol distillate is then placed into barrels where it draws its color and most of its flavor from the wood. After it has reached maturity, a decision is made to bottle it, sometimes blending several barrels together or mixing it with neutral spirits to achieve a specific flavor profile.
Depending on what grains (the mash) are used to make the beer, whiskies can earn different names. For instance, in addition to several other important requirements, in order to call a whiskey "bourbon" the mash must contain at least 51% corn. By the same token, a mash bill that lists at least 51% rye can be labeled as a "straight rye whiskey".
Geography has obviously influenced the choice of grains used to make whiskey, but distillers today carefully adhere to recipes that produce a spirit with specific and consistent flavors. Whiskey that contains rye is known for its bolder character and is sometimes described as having a spicy flavor when compared to other whiskies. This has made rye an ideal standout in mixed cocktails where it is used in popular drinks like the Manhattan, the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned. So, when Prohibition nearly obliterated whiskey production in the US, scofflaws and bootleggers turned to Canadian sources and to moonshiners to fill their demand, and quality American rye all but disappeared.
However, a small family business in Iowa chose to become outlaws and continued to produce their rye illegally. Templeton Rye supplied product to Al Capone's gang who in turn smuggled the precious goods into speakeasies in Chicago, New York, and even as far west as California. Templeton became known as "the good stuff".
More Rye Please
At the end of Prohibition, many distilleries had closed down. Even now, there are relatively few brands of rye available with perhaps only a dozen different names on US shelves. Fortunately, that is slowly changing as Americans are once again rediscovering rye whiskey. Today, Templeton uses their prohibition recipe and high quality ingredients to produce a small batch product with limited distribution and very high demand. It seems that "the good stuff" is still an appropriate way to describe it—that is, if you can find any.
As with any aged product, there is significant lag between initial production and final sale. Templeton Rye enjoys at least four years in new charred American white oak, and although annual production volume is growing, it's so popular that they decided to institute a monthly allocation restriction to keep it from completely selling out each year. You simply can't find it on the shelves in Minnesota because they currently only sell it in Iowa and Illinois, and starting in December, you will also be able to buy a bottle when you visit the distillery.
I sometimes bring bottles home from out-of-state excursions and I enjoy documenting such adventures, but when I describe drinks on Summit Sips, I try to use products that local readers can obtain. With more than one rye whiskey available in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, you might be wondering if it's worth the effort to make the trip to Iowa or to stop at a liquor store when passing through. Sure, they win awards year after year for their product, but is it really worth the hassle? Yes. It's definitely worth it.
An Informal Comparison
To prove it, I pulled a few bottles of rye from the cabinet and did a taste test against a sample of Templeton. I used Jim Beam Rye, Old Overholt, and my personal stand-by, Rittenhouse. You can find each of these pretty easily around town as well as a few others. The results surprised me. Templeton uses 91% rye in it's mash, so I was expecting to be blown away with spicy boldness. Instead, I was impressed by its complexity. I was even more impressed when the strong flavors I have come to recognize in rye whiskey were tempered by a smoothness that none of the other samples shared. While each rye made statements on the tongue, only Templeton did so with a "tenderness" that took me by surprise. And it's not just winter spice flavors here either. It's full-bodied with buttery caramel that doesn't come across as overly sweet. I quickly realized I had poured too much of the other samples.
It seemed a shame to even consider sacrificing a drop of this to a mixed drink, but I decided to struggle through it and made myself an Old Fashioned. Later, I tried a Manhattan and found that Templeton was up for that challenge as well. If you think you enjoy an occasional whiskey cocktail but have yet to try one with rye, do yourself a big favor and pick up a bottle. Better yet, do yourself an even bigger favor and look for a bottle of Templeton. So many of us travel over the holidays, and if your plans include a road trip through Iowa or Illinois, make a point to stop for it. You could also let the family know that it's on your holiday gift list, and if everyone buys you the same present, well, you should be so lucky!
If you've tried "the good stuff" or you know a good place to get some, let me know in the comments below.