Friday, December 21, 2018

The Evolution of American Rye Whiskey - Part 1

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While the name of the King of Cocktails is immortalized in the very title of the American Martini Laboratory, our investigations are not limited to one drink. Today begins an occasional series that will trace the history of Rye Whiskey in America, from its humble origins to the present day. Herewith, Part 1:


If we are to explore the history of Rye Whiskey in America (and that is certainly my intention), we must begin at the beginning. And that beginning is, amazingly enough, Rum.

The American Colonies, before the War of Independence were not peopled by teetotalers. Far from it! Life was hard, pleasures were relatively few and greatly appreciated, and the water was dangerous to drink. So, from the earliest colonists on, American society was awash in beer, hard cider, applejack, and distilled spirits. Some even sank so low as to drink wine -- though American wine was dreadful and imported wine so expensive that only Thomas Jefferson could afford it regularly.

In the Colonial era, the tipple of choice was rum.  Not the smooth and delicious drink we now know but a cruder version distilled from the by-products of the molasses industry. Still, it was the best of a bad lot and prodigious amounts of it were made and sold.

There were two problems with rum.

The first was that it was a major component of the "triangular trade." The Americas sold sugar and rum to England, which sent cloth and manufactured good to Africa, which sent slaves to the Americas. So it was a part of our great nation's Original Sin. Not that this bothered many American at the time. Which is also a part of our collective national guilt.

The second problem is that rum at that time was pretty rough stuff. Which is why so many Colonial drink recipes involved massive amounts of fruit and sugar.

One of the best of these drinks was invented at a gentlemen's fishing club on the banks of the Schuylkill River, not far from the world headquarters of the American Martini Institute. It is named  Fish House Punch, after the august institution in which it was first concocted

Most recipes involve bottles of each ingredient and sacks of sugar, because they were meant to be served in enormous punch bowls to large groups of hard-drinking men and women who had no idea how soon they would become our Founding Fathers and Mothers. With perseverance, however, you can find more manageable recipes. Here's one:

Fish House Punch 
1 shot rum
1 shot cognac
3/4 shot peach brandy
1 1/2 shots simple syrup.
juice from 1 lemon 
directions: Mix, Chill, and serve with a spiced cherry. Serves two.

And the results? as you might guess, this is an intensely sweet drink. Also very, very fruity. But anyone mixing this cocktail is going to know that going in. At the taste test, Fish House Punch won over even the skeptics. It is flavorful, bright, and festive. A terrific party drink and far superior to the dreadful things that are usually served in punch bowls.

Also, it packs a punch. Our Colonial forebears certainly knew how to party!

So for one bright, warm moment, everything (if you could ignore the slavery part, that is) everything was good.

But then -- spoiler alert! -- came the American Revolution and everything changed, changed utterly. Including what kind of alcohol Americans drank.

More on this will be published here later.


And as always . . .

I'm on the road again. Off, in fact, to have Yuletide-related adventures. Be good while I'm away, all right? I know you can.

There's a first time for everything.



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2 comments:

Владимир Иванов said...

Виски - штука хорошая, да истины в нём меньше, чем в вине.

Michael Swanwick said...

Ah, but I don't go to whiskey in search of truth.