[From time to time, my dear friend Kristy sends us an entry for the happyrobot. She is one of our west coast robots and has been in the wine & spirits business for many years.]
It's a beefstick when I'm hungry
Rye whiskey when I'm dry -
Greenback when I'm hard up
Heaven when I die.
If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck, I'd dive to the bottom and never come up...
If the whiskey don't kill me, I'll live ‘til I die.
- Tex Ritter
Yes. This retro beverage is serious. Making a come back like the miniskirt, like go-go boots, like a bitchin' Camero with T-tops, domestic rye whiskey is no longer the drink of our ancestors. If you are a fan of good grain whiskey, then do yourself a favor and saddle up to a fine glass of this liquid beauty.
Bourbon v. Rye
Unlike Bourbon, which is legally made with at least 51% corn, rye must be made from at least 51% rye – making it robust, spicy, hearty and in several instances, quite elegant. Rye is to bourbon, what Irish whiskey is to Scotch – the rebellious distant cousin who likes to push the limits. This whiskey is not as smoky as a fine single malt scotch, and not as hot buttered sweet caramel as a bourbon.
As taught by the famous scotch whiskey distiller, Jim McEwan, you should show your respect for all whiskey and the people who made it by pouring it first into a stemmed glass. (A white wine glass will do if you don't have a proper stemmed whiskey glass.) Observe the beauty of the color, the bead, the legs and most of all, savor one moment for the folks who built this beverage for your pleasure – depending on the age of the whiskey, they may not still be this side of the dirt.
Next, be sure you let the whiskey breathe at least one minute for every year it is old... 10 minutes for 10 year, 23 minutes for 23 year and so on. Yes, this takes some planning, but enjoying a fine whiskey should be somewhat planned.
If you can't wait for the older one to open, then pour it, move it to the side and pour a younger one to enjoy while the old guy wakes up. You'll be grateful for the time.
**Great bar game – you can determine the age of a whiskey by moving it back and forth on your tongue from front to back a few times, then swallow. If the heat shows up in the front of your tongue, you have young whiskey. Mid palate heat is usually 10-15 years old and heat in the back of the mouth is where the oldest ones rest.
One more rule of thumb. You never want to put water or ice into a fine whiskey over 20 years old. That goes for any fine whiskey – scotch, bourbon, rye, Irish whiskey, etc. This is an insult to the beverage and it is unnecessary. If you are mixing a Manhattan with some Wild Turkey or Old Overholt, then please add as much ice as you like, but for a nice bottle like the Hirsch 21 year old, never destroy its delicacy with water or ice.
The main idea is to sip rye whiskeys anytime you have the opportunity – some are very rare. At Casa Micheltorena, we are fortunate enough to have combed the entire U.S. for our collection and have the ability to taste all the whiskey side by side whenever we wish. Yes, you should be jealous, but it took years to accumulate our bottles, and if we have an earthquake it's all over.
The moral of the story is to drink it when you can find it.
The Casa Micheltorena Rye Collection
Our stash includes...
Wild Turkey for mixing cocktails – the Jim Beam was too sweet and the Old Overholt too aggressive. None of these are rare.
Rittenhouse and Sazerak 6 year old for casual sipping over ice or for a nice beverage shaken, not stirred. Great whiskeys for under $30, but not the easiest to find – worth seeking out. We mail order ours by the case from New York and Chicago to the Casa in Los Angeles.
Stepping forward into the more refined whiskeys, we have all Old Potrero Rye Collection from the Anchor Distillery in San Francisco – the only 100% rye's made (that we know of). They range in smell from fresh baked cinnamon rolls to almost fine gin. They are the most lightly styled and colored ryes in the collection, but definitely have their place in the line up. These are the most like scotch of any rye we've tried. Lovely. Old Potrero Single Malt (90 proof), aged in new charred oak, Old Potrero 18th Century (125 proof), aged in uncharred oak, and Old Potrero Hotalings Single Malt (100 proof), aged 11 years in American Oak -- a special bottling named in honor of the man who actually saved the whiskey, 100 years ago in the San Francisco Earthquake.
Pappy Van Winkle 13 year old – not even Sissy Van Winkle can find this for her own consumption, but we have a few bottles in our stash. It is divine.
Sazerak 18 year and Thomas Handy – these are amazing. The Sazerak is one of the most rare of all the rye whiskeys and it is absolutely incredible. Thomas Handy is part of their “antique” series, which is basically 8 year old Sazerak pulled straight from the barrel, then bottled uncut at 130 Proof. Not sure why they call it antique, but if you ever see any of this, you should buy it. Very rare. Hands down, Sazerak 18 year is definately one of the best fine rye whiskeys out there.
Black Maple Hill 18 year whiskey won the top billing in the NYT Dining In Section a couple of weeks ago. While it is rich and full, it is also the most similar style to a bourbon whiskey of any in the collection. It is sweet and rich, but robust and full of spice.
Classic Cask 21 year (90 proof), Hirsch Select 21 year (93 proof), and Rittenhouse 21 year (100 proof), are all pretty phenomenal, each in their own way. The Rittenhouse 21 is very delicate and refined, almost holding back some of its power, but also very fiery hot – best with a cube of ice or two and twenty one minutes to open up. The Classic Cask and Hirsch tie for tops in the 21 year category and neither are too difficult to find – so treat yourself! In case you doubt dropping the cash, these two are worth every penny.
Vintage Rye 23 year was a wacky, unexpected find in Chicago that has slowly made its way to the top 3 rye whiskeys in the Casa. Not sure about its origins, but it is certainly a score. Amazingly powerful, yet soothing and familiar – curl up with this one by the fireside and a warm peace of bread pudding bathed in vanilla ice cream. You can't go wrong.
George Washington drank rye whiskey mixed with hard cider – a fizzy, refreshing drink called the “Stone Fence.” Rye whiskey lost favor during Prohibition because corn was the more logical grain crop in the northeast, and folks just didn't make very much rye after that time. Whiskey became BOURBON, based from corn with a sweetness to please almost any palate. There is still plenty of room for bourbon out there, but rye is coming back so fast they can't make enough.
Enjoy it when you can, seek it out when you can't.