Chapter 4: The Mystery of Monongahela Rye
For good and sufficient reasons, Monongahela rye was the gold standard for American whiskey. (The name came from the Monongahela River, which runs through the region of Pennsylvania where the rye was grown and the distilleries located.) But exactly what was Monongahela rye? What did it taste like?
So far as I have been able to learn, no one knows.
Various accounts agree that Old Monongahela Rye, as with age it came to be known, was bigger, spicier, denser, chewier, and more aggressive than ryes distilled elsewhere. Perhaps this was due to the terroir of the rye and malt—the only grains used in making Old Monongahela rye. Possibly, it had something to do with the limestone-filtered spring water that was used. It also may be that a mechanism no longer employed because it requires constant tending, the three-chamber still, contributed to Old Monongahela rye’s unique flavor. It’s a complicated question.
With the revival of rye’s prestige, craft distilleries across the nation have taken to creating their own takes on that grand old whiskey. Those located in Pennsylvania are, of course, anxious to claim the Monongahela title for their own. But while they have been responsible for many fine versions of rye, there is no agreement as to what elements are required to stake a claim to the prestige of the name. Particularly given that many of the distilleries, bowing to contemporary tastes, include other grains in their mash bill.
Which of all these worthy ryes comes closest to Old Monongahela? Until the glad and unlikely day that a dozen century-old cases of Old Overholt are discovered in somebody’s barn and a swarm of chemists and master distillers are allowed to taste and analyze, we will never know.
Meanwhile, let’s raise a glass to the mystery with a classic Old Fashioned:
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 sugar cube or 1 barspoon simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
directions: muddle sugar cube and bitters with one barspoon of water (or else drop in the simple syrup), add rye and stir; serve with ice and a twist of orange peel for garnish
The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest cocktails in existence and, it must be said, is nowadays usually made with bourbon. Any whiskey works splendidly. But preparing it as above recalls the era of our great-great grandfathers when whiskey was by default rye. You don’t get much more old-fashioned than that.
Thanks once again for this series. And another thanks for mentioning Old Overholt which was my introduction to rye. Think I'll make an Old Fashioned tonight.
Your reference to the "three-chamber still" got me curious. I'm not a distiller - more of a drinker - but I have a fascination with stills and still technology, so I got to wondering what a three-chamber still looked like.
If it helps anyone any, the Ved Elven Distillery has what seems like a reference page on the three-chamber still including historical drawings and information about their own still.
I don't have any relationship with Ved Elven, but they sound like people to keep an eye on.
That's interesting--and very generous of Ved Elven to provide links to other distilleries. I'd known about Leopold Brothers, but not about Ved Elven. Thank you for the information.
I look forward to the day, soon I hope, when three-chamber still rye is available at merely expensive prices and I can find out what it's like.
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