Rye Whiskey...Man, you cannot imagine how happy it makes me to see Rye coming back into its own and onto shelves and into mouths everywhere. Even in Asia, Europe, and South America, Whiskey fans are rediscovering the earthy muscle and donkey-tongue-punch character of chewy, spicy, peppery rye in their whiskeys and, not coincidentally, their ales. Several beer fan readers of this here website-ish extravaganza have messaged me to say that drinking a rye-heavy ale has made them curious about Rye Whiskey and led them to ask their local liquor store guy (or me) about what Whiskeys would show that character best.
For most who have asked me, the blanket response has been “Templeton Rye”, the Iowa-made workhorse that was a favorite of Al Capone, which is my sidelong way of saying it’s been around a long time. It was running about $45 a bottle, a few years back, but has now dropped into the mid-$20s and constitutes a HUGE bargain in a brawny, rye-forward Whiskey. More on this below…
Just in time for your Holiday gifting (and also just in time to keep you happily semi-sedated for your lock-down, should you choose that route and want to gift yourself a bit) here are some very drinkable Ryes that will make great, budget-savvy gifts and let you grab an extra for yourself without major guilt spasms.
The first on this list is an unassuming bottle that’s available, so I’m told, mainly through the BevMo juggernaught, Bishop Rye Whiskey, brother of Bishop Bourbon. The provenance of these two is somewhat shrouded in mystery, as their owner, Dynasty Spirits of Dallas, has been besieged by at least one shyster – a corporate attorney who’s been tried for a whole pantload of financial crimes – and their own lack of initiative in getting their name about. Whatever the reason – and it’s entirely possible that the shadowy Dynasty is no longer even around and is just selling off its inventory to BevMo – this bottle of earthy, peppery Rye was on a summer promotion from BM and led me to do that rarest of things: purchase a bottle.
Nutshell: it’s a lovely bottle of Rye that offers up effusive spices both sweet and savory, mild caramels, citrus peels, beeswax, roasted nuts, and something reminiscent of under-ripe peaches, all in a remarkably satiny texture and with firm but minimal burn. Is this the best Rye you’ll ever taste? Probably not. But it IS a howlin’ bargain at its price – $19 – $25 – and seems to be in good supply, for now at least. One additional virtue is that, for reasons Dynasty alone understands, there is fuck-all information available about Dynasty or this Whiskey (aside from a few reviews), online. Whoever you were to give this to would have a fairly daunting task digging up evidence that you’re a cheapskate, unless they want to go to a really ungracious amount of sleuthery. Bishop Rye is a FINE bottle that will blend well and not bust your cache of cash. BEST VALUE
As I have no interest in reinventing the wheel, here, I have to mention Rittenhouse Rye. You’ve seen it on shelves. But, if you’re not in the Geezer Age Stratum, you probably dismissed it and went on to one of the New Shiny Baubles. Bad move. Rittenhouse is quite possibly the Gold Standard of American Rye. A certified Bottled In Bond whiskey, it’s an honest 100 Proof (50% ABV), rich, smooth, and stunningly rye-forward, literally shoveling the spice ‘n’ pepper and chewy caraway notes onto your unsuspecting tongue, along with red peppers, cinnamon, stone fruit, dark honey, figs, and that barrel-driven vanilla. It is, IMO, one of the greatest bargains in world whiskey and , at right around $20 per, the dead-bang best buy in Rye.
Writing at thewhiskeyjug.com, reviewer Josh Peters seemed to run slap-out of adjectives: “It’s just plain magnificent.” His only reservation was that it’s a but faint on the nose, which is right, but it works at making up for that with the texture – like diluted glycerine – richness, intensity and depth. Smart guy, that Josh. Smart you for ignoring the impossibly pedestrian label and gifting your Whiskey-geek father, uncle, brother, sister, or friend with this stuff. EXCELLENT VALUE
Again, on the original wheels, Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. Okay, I’ll ‘fess up: like most people, even of my advanced age, I saw Old Overholt there on the bottom shelf and thought, “Rotgut“. And never bought it or even ordered it out, somewhere, to try. It’s America’s oldest Whiskey brand, in production since 1810(!!). Over the years, as the appeal of Ryes waned almost to nothing, it often America’s only Rye Whiskey and that as recently as the 1960s. It was bought out by James B Beam Distilling Company in 1987 and they changed…not a damned thing. Good move. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“, the Beam folks reasoned and Old Overholt was Not Broke.
For the fairly consistent shelf price of well under $20 (often $14 to $16!), you get the oldest, most established Whiskey recipe in America, plus a bounty of richness and earthy goodness, almost a pourable comfort food idea. The mash bill contains a fairly high proportion of corn, adding texture and a touch of sweetness, and emphatic aromas/flavors of vanilla, orange zest, that leatherish impression we wine weenies like to call “baseball mitt”, fresh baked bread, cream, baking spices, and a firm blast of the rye’s pepper and savory spices and a big note of dried ryegrass. It’s a remarkably smooth and some what mild-mannered Whiskey but one who’s palate is as broad as all git-out and as complete as Ryes costing four times its price. EXCEPTIONAL VALUE
And those “buddies”?
C’mon, you have that Whiskey fan you know who’s deserving of something a little more, uh, special. (translation: You’d pay more to impress) Nowadays, there’s a better-than-even possibility that that Rye Geek is your wife, girlfriend, or even your Mom. Women, after being condescended to for 150 years by male Whiskey chauvinists, told us all to screw off, about 15, 20 years ago, and started drinking whatever they damned well pleased. And Ryes pleased a whole buncha women.
My own wife’s favorite Whiskey is, in fact, a Rye and one of America’s first and most influential: the aforementioned Templeton Rye.
During the height of Prohibition, residents of the small Iowa town of Templeton (Population 350) told the feds to, in effect, screw off. They didn’t advertise the fact widely but started to produce a high-quality Whiskey, heavily based on the local and plentiful rye, mainly for the consumption of the town and nearby residents who “knew a guy”. One of those who “knew a guy” was Chicago crime boss, Al Capone, a man who was very hard to say “No” to. Capone procured, drank, and quietly spread the word around about this crazy-fine stuff – from IOWA, of all places, never the booze capital of America – which made Templeton Rye an underground legend, until the Repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, pulled back the curtain.
During that namby-pamby period when American tastes were steered by armies of Bud-swillin’, nutless troglodytes, Templeton languished, before the brand was revived, for the new Rye Boom, by co-founders Meryl Kerkhoff, Scott Bush, and Infinium Spirits, a division of Young’s Holdings, LLC. Meryl Kerkhoff is son of Alphons Kerkhoff, who was one of the most prolific Prohibition-era producers of The Good Stuff. And, Voila!, Templeton is Back.
Templeton is a classic; arguably the template from which a LOT of current Ryes are made. It’s now made at the huge spirits distillers, MGP, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and has had some of the early edition’s rough edges expertly ground off. Templeton is now still a brawny, full-bore Rye but the former daunting burn has been stifled a bit and replaced by a firm backbone of classic caramel, butter cream, oaky vanilla, and whole-grain bread toast. The mash bill is 95% rye and 5% barley, so the grainy, spicy, chewy rye character comes roaring out of the glass.
It is still bottled in Iowa and that bothers a lot of people. Josh Peters, whom I mentioned above, had a genuine hissy-fit about Kerkhoff’s admission that the new Templeton had additives that are intended to make it taste like the original. What Josh apparently missed is that the original Templeton also had additives, as did MOST distilled spirits, back in the 1800s and early 1900s, because distilling was a very imprecise craft and impurities often showed up as off-notes that needed hiding. (BTW, that very problem was the original reason cocktails became popular in the US, to hide off flavors in the dirty booze of that age) Josh should get past that. As should all those weenies who scream foul about a mega-producer like MGP making spirits on a contract basis. MANY of the best Whiskeys, all over the planet, are made on contract. What matters is What’s In The Glass and being a huffy purist serves only to limit their own enjoyment of pleasures available to more eclectic drinkers.
Templeton is a fine Rye with a colorful history, to boot. EXEPTIONAL VALUE
Lastly…if you really want to roll somebody’s socks clean off and out the front door, give ’em a bottle of Sazerac Rye. Sazerac is another history lesson, the namesake of Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, where the Sazerac cocktail was invented.
Saz is just simply what you want from a great Rye. In fact, it is even a little more that you wanted but didn’t know it. It’s RICH, viscous as diluted honey, spicy-sweet in the manner of Cajun food, earthy as a mud fence, yet sophisticated enough for a prissy cocktail, and crammed full of delicious grace notes like cinnamon and nutmeg and warm caramel and dried fruits like cherry and candied orange peel and sugar plums and even a hit of tobacco. It is quintessentially New Orleanian and is a superb mixer, for those who do that stuff, so I’m told. From my end, it is as good a sipping Whiskey as I have ever found and carries a mild but satisfying burn that ties together the bounty of sweet notes without letting them dominate.
As a gift, well, it makes you look like Daddy Warbucks and is sure to please your Whiskey-geek friend or loved one. I cannot recommend it highly enough, which is fortunate because I would probably get knee-capped if it didn’t have it around for the holidays. And yet…It’s only about $30! HIGHEST VALUE
So, for these shut-in Holidays…embrace your inner Ryes Guy, or some splendid drinking and gift-giving.