This week’s New York Times food section has a fun article on rye whiskey. Apparently it’s all the rage these days in Epicurean drinking circles, mostly because there’s so little of the good stuff around. Clearly there’s a significant, “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” undercurrent to this whole craze, which is, er…something I wouldn’t know anything about. What’s more off-putting than a know-it-all after all?
Anyway, while some of these newly minted rye lovers are undoubtedly just looking for the next obscure food fad to become an instant expert on, others are genuinely discovering the pleasures of a seldom-tasted spirit. I can say I’ve always loved rye (and hence be even cooler than all these Manhattanite johnny-come-latelies) because I’ve always been cheap when it comes to buying whiskey. Since I’ve been of age (a lot longer than I care to admit) I’ve been able to buy a great bottle of rye for the price of a merely so-so bottle of bourbon. In the late eighties you could get 750 milliliters of Wild Turkey rye for $11.95, and it was every bit the pleasure of their straight bourbon, which went for almost twenty. People just weren’t drinking the stuff.
One erroneous thing in the article is the notion that rye has only been unpopular for a decade or two. In fact rye hasn’t been a staple drink in America since before Prohibition. Prior to that time, every whiskey drinker in America (especially those in the Northeast where the grain was more commonly grown) drank rye. Prohibition put the hammer down on rye distillers as it did all other whiskey makers. But unlike the corn whiskey industry, which rebounded once prohibition was lifted, rye never came back. It was in fact supplanted by Canadian whiskey, which has always been made with a proportion of rye, and which flowed down to the states (illegally) all through the prohibition years. For those Americans who became accustomed to that great northern rye-tinged hooch, there was no reason to go back.