Rye whisky is making a comeback, and it's about time.
The odd thing about rye is that many Canadians were unaware it went away. That's because "rye" is often used interchangeably with "Canadian whisky," an erroneous association reinforced by Canada's misleading labelling laws. Though rye was once a standard ingredient in Canadian whiskies, few today contain much of the grain at all. Many are distilled entirely from corn or wheat or both.
And that's a shame. I'm nuts for rye, which is to most Canadian whisky what rye bread is to the white stuff you spread with peanut butter and jam for your child's lunchbox. Exceedingly dry and angular, it delivers a trademark kick of spice.
One superb brand is Rittenhouse Straight Rye, just released in Ontario (score: 95; $34.95). You'll occasionally find it in other provinces and at bars that take their whisky seriously. Oily and round, it's impressively balanced for a spirit containing 50-per-cent alcohol, igniting the tongue with more spice than alcoholic heat.
Supplies are limited because the whisky comes from the United States, where keen consumers have been snapping up coveted brands the way they did small-batch bourbons, leaving scant quantities of some of the best stuff for export. Alas, the rye-vival is more an American phenomenon than Canadian.
That only makes sense. Paradoxically, rye has deeper roots south of the border than here. The grain was standard in whisky-making during American independence, when it was more popular than bourbon. George Washington turned to rye distilling at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia after his presidency, brewing up 11,000 gallons of the spirit in one year alone, 1799. It was the original base for many classic cocktails, including the sazerac and Manhattan, both of which today are more commonly prepared with bourbon.
Rye beat a swift retreat with the decline of distilling in the U.S. northeast, notably in Pennsylvania, where the grain grew well. Bourbon, made mainly from corn and almost entirely in Kentucky, soon filled the void, eventually becoming synonymous with American whisky.
Long-standing brands such as Old Overholt from Pennsylvania and Rittenhouse and Jim Beam Rye, both from Kentucky, have become fashionable during the past five years along with many small-batch U.S. brands, including Old Potrero Straight Single Malt from California and the easier-to-find and very good Sazerac, a New Orleans brand from the same family that owns the excellent Buffalo Trace Kentucky bourbon distillery.
By law, rye in the United States must be distilled from at least 51-per-cent rye. Ironically, in Canada the required content in a bottle labelled "Canadian rye whisky" is - are you ready? - zero. Canadian whisky acquired the nickname because in many cases it contained a proportion of rye to impart edge to sweeter-tasting corn. As with the King of Pop, the nickname stuck around long after it outgrew its relevance.
The keeper of the rye flame in Canada is Alberta Distillers. I like the Calgary company's Alberta Premium, a five-year-old rye that's firm, crisp and juicy as well as a bargain at about $24 across the country. Much more rare and introduced to Ontario this month is Alberta Premium 30 Year Old Limited Edition (score: 91; $49.95). Three decades in wood has softened the brittle notes of the rye and added more of a sweet caramel and vanilla essence. It's rye with a less aggressive bite than many of its U.S. counterparts. How very Canadian.
Bill Sweete's rye sazerac
Bill Sweete, co-owner of Sidecar Bar and Grill in Toronto, helps run a private-member cocktail club called - with tongue in cheek - the Toronto Temperance Society. Among the club's popular drinks is the rye-based sazerac, created by New Orleans pharmacist Antoine Peychaud in the mid-19th century. Initially made with French brandy called Sazerac de Forge et Fils, the drink featured Mr. Peychaud's own brand of drug-store bitters and was later popularized using rye in place of brandy. The creator's name lives on in Peychaud's bitters, a herbal-citrus distillate you'll have to pick up in the United States and import yourself. Here's Mr. Sweete's preferred recipe. If you can't get your hands on Peychaud's bitters, just leave them out.
Pour a dash of absinthe liqueur into a small tulip-shaped or cocktail glass, then fill the glass with ice water and leave to chill. Meanwhile, in a cocktail shaker with ice, pour 2 ounces rye along with ½ ounce simple syrup (a mix of water and dissolved sugar) and 3 or 4 dashes each Peychaud's and Angostura bitters. Stir till it becomes cold. Discard the absinthe-water bath (you simply want the absinthe essence to remain) and strain the second mixture into the now-empty first glass. Twist a slice of orange rind over top of the cocktail, making sure the oil from the rind sprays into the glass. Serve.