I don't mind a challenge when working behind the bar, and trying to convert Australians to the brilliance of rye whiskey is right up there. You want a whisky that's rich, spicy and full-bodied – try a rye whiskey.
You want something obscure and different – give rye whiskey a go. You want something with centuries of tradition and heritage behind it – I've got the perfect rye whiskey for that.
And yet, I seldom receive a positive response. Why? I think it's partly because of rye's spicy, dry, almost dark flavours – often too intense for the uninitiated (try rye bread versus white bread for an illuminating comparison).
And partly because many Aussies still associate American whiskey with an RTD can (most rye whiskey hails from the US) and those embarrassing adolescent nights when things often went, well, awry.
Despite this Australian hesitancy, rye whiskey has made a huge resurgence in the last decade. New rye whiskeys continue to materialise, and a number of old American rye brands like Michter's and Pikesville, born in the Mid-Atlantic states where rye used to thrive, are now being brought back to life.
Bartenders, obsessed with the traditional and the arcane, have also been influential here. Rye whiskey works brilliantly in cocktails; indeed, many early American cocktail recipes were built around rye as it was the most popular grain for making whiskey in 19th-century America.
Today, American rye whiskey is produced much like bourbon, its sweeter cousin. But whereas bourbon utilises corn in the mash bill (51 per cent at minimum), rye whiskey harnesses its titular grain for the main ingredient.
Maturation of rye whiskey also occurs in charred new oak barrels for a minimum of two years, if, like bourbon, it wants to wear the 'Straight' title. Other rules around distillation and bottling proof are virtually identical.
These rules, and the mainly Kentuckian distillers working to them, have given us some benchmark rye whiskies: Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey and Knob Creek are shining examples.
But the recent explosion in the consumption and production of rye whiskey – around a 500 per cent increase in the past five years – has seen all sorts of brands jumping on the rye train. Even big guns like Jack Daniel's and Johnnie Walker are trying to capitalise on the trend, no doubt triggered by a range of producers from around the world who've brought their own unique spin to the style.
Rye around the world
In Australia, Tasmania's Peter Bignell leads the way with his 100 per cent rye whisky, Belgrove Rye. It's a complete original, being one of only a dozen paddock-to-bottle whiskies made anywhere in the world. And because it's only distilled from a rye mash – most Yankee brands throw in some corn and barley because rye's difficult to mash – it's hugely flavourful: grassy, peppery and with a gingery crackle to it. The latest Belgrove wine cask expressions, mainly matured in Tassie shiraz and pinot noir barrels, have been particularly spectacular.
The Great Southern Distilling Company, producers of the accomplished Limeburners Single Malt, have also released their own rye expression, Rye of the Tiger. While the name is … different, the juice is sound: dense, earthy and with a pronounced matiness (to be expected from a mash bill of 60 per cent rye and 40 per cent malt).
From other parts, the Millstone 100 Rye Whisky is up there with the best in the world. It's produced by the talented Zuidam Distillers in the Netherlands, of all places, and comfortably holds its own against the top American brands.
Then there's the Canadian's, who I'd be remiss to leave out, particularly as Canadian whisky was often referred to as 'rye' in days gone by. The intricacies of Canadian whisky production are best left to another day, but try J.P Wiser's Lot 40, or the WhistlePig, a Canadian-made, US-bottled straight rye whiskey (don't even get me started). Both illustrate how seriously good Canadian rye whisky can be.
In cocktails, rye whiskey is such an amenable mixer. If you haven't tried a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned with rye, you're seriously letting the team down. Move on to a Sazerac once you've rectified that situation, and then try an Old Pal for something a bit different – a rich, bitter, herbaceous number that's drier than your typical Negroni or Boulevardier, but plenty complex (directions below).
And if that seems too challenging, just pour yourself a quality rye and wash it back with a beer – old school, effective, and a great way to get to know one of the whisky world's most intriguing characters.
45 ml rye whiskey (Rittenhouse works brilliantly)
30 ml dry vermouth (I like Dolin here)
30 ml Campari
Stir all ingredients and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with orange peel.
Check out the gallery above to see a selection of rye whiskies to try now.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, 'The Australian Spirits Guide', was recently published by Hardie Grant Books.
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