3. The Revolutionary Spirit
The War for Independence changed everything for Americans. If you were an American of the Canadian or Mexican variety, it provided you with an admittedly difficult neighbor. But if you were a citizen of the United States, it meant giving up on tea—John Adams called it “the traitor’s drink”—and taking up the drinking of coffee. This identification of tea with tyranny began with the Tea Tax, continued through the Boston Tea Party, and became more and more universal as the war progressed. By the time the smoke had cleared, coffee was the drink of the brave and free.
As was rye.
Americans did not give up rum for symbolic ideological reasons, however. Rather, they were forced to live without it because of the British embargo on trade. You simply couldn’t get the stuff in the quantities you were used to—and wouldn’t until the war ended.
Meanwhile, a patriot had to drink something.
To fill this need, up stepped the hard-working and industrious farmers of western Pennsylvania. Who were, at the time, in a bit of a fix. The roads from Pittsburgh and environs to New York and Boston were rudimentary at best. So the cost of shipping grain to their major markets was prohibitively expensive. If, however, you converted that grain to whiskey, it could be shipped far more economically and sold for much more money. Patriotism and profit! It was a winning combination.
Because of the soil and climate of western Pennsylvania, that grain and consequently that whiskey was rye. It was not, however, the spicy amber fluid that we drink today. It was White Dog Whiskey, raw and unaged, exactly as it emerged from the still.
In flavor and effect, white rye whiskey is very much like white corn whiskey or “moonshine” as the romantics among us (pretty much all Americans) like to call it: a rough, abrasive, vile-tasting, and occasionally poisonous glug whose single virtue is that it will get you drunk.
From the consumer’s point of view, there is absolutely no need for bottled white rye. For the start-up rye distillery, however, there is a reason and it’s a compelling one. Once your rye has been distilled, it takes several years to age. In order to keep the lights on, it only makes good sense to start selling some of the stuff the same day you distill it—provided you can find a market for it. And you can!
Because Americans, remember, will drink anything.
To test just how American I am, I bought a bottle of “Small
Batch White Rye Whiskey” from a trusted distillery and had a snort. It tasted a
lot like Randolph County’s (that’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia)
finest. Which is to say: for teenage boys, broken-down alkies and people with
an overdeveloped sense of vicarious nostalgia only.
Determined to be fair, I made a White Manhattan using white dog whiskey. Here’s the recipe:
2 ounces white dog rye
1 ounce white vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
orange peel for garnish.
directions: make, taste, and discard
As expected, it tasted like somebody tried to turn moonshine into a cocktail. Anyone desperate enough to drink white dog is advised to mix it with Fresca instead. Or Orange Crush, Pepto Bismol, whatever comes to hand. It’ll cost less and couldn’t taste any worse.
So the Revolution had been won and the great American experiment was underway. But the whiskey was still terrible.
Fortunately for our nation, a miracle was about to happen.
Above: I've sampled all these ryes so that you don't have to. You're welcome.