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Rye the Return: Bigger and Badder

Posted on Friday, Jan. 30, 2015


Hello everyone – Happy New Year! Is that an appropriate greeting this late in January? Considering it feels like January just started, I’m going to say yes. I hope everyone is having a wonderful 2015 so far. Here at Metropole, we’ve been busy creating the new cocktail list and I cannot wait to hear some feedback! Now onto the booze…

Don’t get me wrong—I  love bourbon as much as the next person—but when I’m creating a cocktail, I almost always grab a bottle of rye before a bottle of bourbon. So first things first, what is the difference between bourbon and rye? Many of the rules for production are similar to bourbon, but rather than having a mash bill made up of 51% corn, rye has to be made with 51% of, you guessed it, rye. Rye needs to be aged in brand new charred American Oak Barrels. The same upper limits for distillation of bourbon apply to rye: it cannot exceed 80% ABV. Similar to bourbon, the rules for rye entering barrels should not exceed 62.5% ABV.  Rye whiskey that has been aged for at least two years may be further designated as “straight”, as in “straight rye whiskey.” But enough about the rules. What does it taste like?

Bourbon tends to be fuller in body, richer, and have concentrated notes of vanilla, baking spices and caramel. And with a 51% mashbill of corn, bourbon is noticeably sweeter. Rye tends to be drier, with more focus on an earthy aspect and is almost always dominated by spice — making it amazing to use in cocktails. Pre-prohibition rye was king of all spirits, and by the time the 21st Amendment was passed, it fell drastically out of fashion; perhaps because corn was cheaper to produce or because tastes became acclimated to bourbon over rye. 10 years ago you would be hard-pressed to find a rye displayed on the shelf of your local watering hole but luckily for all of us – and our taste buds – rye has come back with a vengeance!  It’s amazing to me the way trends are circular, and if it was good before it will probably be good again. Let’s hope this adage is not true of the drink trends from the 90’s, a world where Sex on the Beach is the “it” tipple. Thank you, but no thank you.  Many of the classic cocktails that are made with bourbon today were originally made with rye: the Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Old Fashioned. If you’ve only had these cocktails with bourbon, I promise you with rye it will feel like a whole new world. Flying-around-on-a-magic-carpet-singing-like-an-idiot kind of whole new world.

For me personally, I love creating rye cocktails because the character of this whiskey adds much more depth than bourbon does. In the classic definition of a cocktail (spirit, water, sugar, bitters, booze), rye adds a spice note to balance out the sweetness and bitterness brought by the other components. This is why nothing is more pure then a Rye Old Fashioned. Or my favorite cocktail on the planet: a perfect Rye Manhattan. When a Manhattan is ordered “perfect” it means that you add equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. I have ordered this cocktail at a bar before and had the bartender say to me, “I’m going to make it extra perfect for you,” which was sweet, but we were clearly on different pages. But I’m not one to complain if I end up with booze in a glass in front of me!

On the new cocktail list is a cocktail that we released on one of our very first menus that is so delightful, we bring it back every year. The Rye Not? (pictured above) is made with Bulleit Rye and a clementine shrub made with tarragon, clove and red wine vinegar. It is savory and bright, and the rye truly shines through all the bold flavors of the shrub.

Adding a bottle of rye to your home bar is relatively easy because, luckily for us all, a great rye can be purchased for very little, in comparison to the trendy bottles of bourbon just a shelf over.  My favorite ryes to mix with are Old Overholt (which can bepurchased for less than $20 and is a great bargain booze) and Bulleit Rye (which you can still find for under $40). For you fancy pants out there looking for some high-end ryes to sip on rather than adding to a cocktail, check out E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey, Lock, Stock & Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey and, for the truly adventurous, Angel’s Envy Rum Finish Rye. If any of you happen to find a bottle of the Angel’s Envy, please by all means stop by, and we’ll “study” it together.

Here are a couple of go-to rye cocktails to try at home and just for purely “educational purposes,” try some classic cocktails side-by-side made with bourbon and rye to truly understand the differences. Strictly for the sake of learning, of course…

2 oz rye
1/2 oz dry vermouth ( I don’t always have dry vermouth at home so I sometimes swap this out with Dolin Blanc which makes for a lighter version of this cocktail)
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters or orange bitters

I prefer my Manhattans on the rocks so I build this cocktail directly in the glass, adding the ice last and always stir your Manhattans. I’m a pretty low-key person, but I will turn into the Incredible Hulk if you shake my Manhattan. No, seriously. It’s like putting ranch dressing on foie gras: you just don’t bloody do it.

1 1/2 oz rye whiskey
3/4 oz applejack
3/4 oz green Chartreuse

Add all ingredients to a glass, add ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a cherry. This cocktail is not for the faint of heart. The first time I had one of these cocktails I nearly toppled back into yesterday but, my god, was it memorable. If you’re a fan of spirit-forward cocktails like Negronis, or The Last Words, you’ve met your match in The Diamond Back.

I’d like to thank everyone who came out for January’s Bitters class, it was our largest class to date, and it sure made me the happiest bartender this side of the Mississippi.  For our February class, we will continue to delve into the world of rye, with all it’s wonderful, spicy goodness! Don’t forget to reserve your spot because this is one you truly don’t want to miss.

I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of the new cocktails. Stop by and work your way through the list, it will certainly keep you warm in the chilly months ahead! Cheers and here’s to hoping for a mild winter… and bold cocktails!

Your neighborhood bartender,
Catherine Manabat