Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Once and Future Rye, Part 4: The Miracle of Brown Whiskey



Chapter 3: The Miracle of Brown Whiskey


The Whiskey Rebellion—which, remember, was all about rye whiskey—was a devastating failure. Instead of a loose confederation of semi-anarchic local governments doing pretty much whatever they chose, George Washington wanted a strong federalist government. And the great hero of the American Revolution had the prestige and, more importantly, the army to enforce that preference upon the citizen-moonshiners of Western Pennsylvania.


Fewer than five rebels died in the rebellion and no soldiers. Two men were sentenced to death for treason but pardoned by President Washington before they could be hanged. But that does not mean the Whiskey Rebellion was not significant. It established the principle of a strong central government, sent thousands of rebels westward over the mountains into what is now Kentucky (we’ll be hearing more about them later) and established a system of taxation that made distilling rye more profitable for large companies than for farmers with a part-time still.


Big Rye prospered. Wagonloads of rye whiskey—or, more properly, white dog—jolted their way from the birthplace of the rebellion (Washington, PA, ironically enough) to Boston and hence up and down the coast. It was also put onto boats on the Monongahela River, which joins the Allegheny to flow into the Ohio, which eventually empties into the Mississippi. In this leisurely fashion, it made its way to New Orleans. It was still nothing that you’d want to put in your mouth. But then…


God provided a miracle.


The easiest way to transport rye whiskey was in barrels and the cheapest way to obtain barrels was to buy them used. In a previous life, the barrels might have carried pickles or molasses or sixpenny nails, nobody much cared. But then, one of the commercial distilleries got a good deal on old wine barrels. (They may also have been charred to clean them out). The barrels were filled with white dog. They probably waited for months in the distillery’s unheated warehouse for winter to end and the roads to New York and Boston become passable again. They certainly spent a long time on those slow boats to New Orleans.


By the time the boats got to their destination, the rye was brown.


Somebody opened a cask and poured a glass. Eyed it dubiously. Took a cautious sniff. Then an even more cautious sip.


Word came back from New Orleans, Boston, and New York: Send us more of the brown whiskey!


The wine-saturated oak barrels had worked an alchemical magic on the white dog. It was no longer merely raw spirits distilled from rye. It had aged. It was now, by God, whiskey. And it was something that a self-respecting sot would happily drink.


Thus was born the prestige of Monongahela Rye.


The best way to celebrate this gift from above is with a Sazerac, one of the most elegant drinks ever devised.



            1 sugar cube

            3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

            a few drops of water

            2 ounces rye whiskey

            1 slosh absinthe or anise liqueur

            lemon twist


            directions: soak sugar cube with bitters and a little water, then muddle; add          whiskey; toss a slosh of absinthe into a chilled empty drinking glass, swirl, and       discard; pour the sweetened rye into the glass; squeeze twist over the drink to express      the oils and then use it as a garnish


The Sazerac was invented in New Orleans and is famed for being the first cocktail. However, all accounts agree that it was created by substituting rye for the cognac in an earlier cocktail. Which just goes to show how slippery things get when dealing with the folklore of alcohol.




JJM said...

By "discard" that slosh of absinthe after swirling it in the glass, no doubt you meant: pour it into another glass, along with some more from the bottle; perform the sacred absinthe ritual so you can spend some quality time with la Fée Verte; and then return to mixing up that Sazarac chaser, right? ;-)

Michael Swanwick said...

Well, *I* do,because I'm cheap. But whenever I've ordered a Sazerac in a bar, the bartender has simply dashed it in the sink.

It makes for a dramatic touch of theater, I have to admit.