The first Irish and Scottish immigrants to America were no less thirsty in the New World. They gathered whatever grain was readily available, and in the model of the barley spirits they enjoyed in their homeland, formulated the first true American whiskey — rye.
Especially prevalent in northeastern states, in particular Pennsylvania and Maryland, rye whiskey was the most common spirit in the colonies, eventually taking the place of rum distilled from Caribbean molasses, a byproduct of the cane sugar industry. It was with rye that many of the classic whiskey-based cocktails, such as the Sazerac and the venerable Manhattan, were first invented.
Eventually, drinkers would realize that corn liquor aged in charred oak barrels from Bourbon County, Ky., was also tasty booze. Well-to-do Southerners hung out on wide plantation porches in their linen suits sipping on bourbon-based juleps while Northern flappers partied into the brash big city morning holding onto the stems of their glasses filled with rye. The country at the time was big enough for two distinct and homegrown whiskeys.
This was all before a clamorous assembly of sober women who presumably hadn't gotten laid in years helped make the production, sale and consumption of alcohol illegal and simultaneously spurred the considerable expansion of organized crime. By the time Prohibition ended, many of the Northern distilleries had sold their buildings or converted them for use in different industries. Coupled with a flood of Canadian whisky in the north, the demise of rye whiskey was all but ensured.
As recently as the 5th edition of Old Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bartender's Guide, published in 1941, rye and bourbon were used interchangeably in the majority of whiskey cocktails. And by the 1990s, rye had all but disappeared except for a few brands produced by bourbon distillers in Kentucky.
Slow Food USA reports that rye whiskey's transition from an American staple to an American relic started with the loss of rye fields after Prohibition — and that the grain currently used to make rye is endangered. In contrast, it's fair to assume that bourbon is the beneficiary of the glut of subsidized corn dating back to Nixon-era agricultural policy.
But cocktail enthusiasts are at the forefront of reviving rye, not only as a historic tipple but a base spirit that is just as good, if not better than bourbon, in certain cocktails. When compared to bourbon, rye has a leaner body and spicier, more assertive flavor. In a Manhattan, for instance, these characteristics allow for a more bracing and precise drink.
Or try the Red Hook. It's a recent classic, and even though relatively new, still deemed by Imbibe magazine to be one of the most influential cocktails of all time. Combine 2 ounces rye whiskey, 1/2 ounce Punt e Mes (a sweet, Italian vermouth notable for its bitter finish) and 1/4 ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. Shake with cracked ice and serve straight up in a cocktail glass. Convince your local bartender to start crafting these simple beauties and you will all be on the cutting edge of cocktail culture.
Now is the time to start supporting rye whiskey, if not for the sake of agricultural diversity and American heritage, at least for a drier Manhattan.