Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Once and Future Rye, Part Last: Risen Like the Phoenix


Chapter 11: Risen Like the Phoenix


Nature abhors a vacuum. In the early years of the twenty-first century, many entrepreneurs had made their nut by building a company from scratch and then selling it to whatever big fish of a corporation swallowed up their kind. Now they were looking around for a business that would be fun to build and run. Craft breweries were an obvious possibility, but that niche was already crowded and hard to make a name in. They did, however, serve as a good model for craft distilleries.


Ambitious men and women bought cheap real estate, expensive stills, and a lot of oak barrels, and set to work. Almost all began by making vodka and then gin, which required no aging. Then they set their sights higher… and saw that the market for rye was scandalously underserved.


Meanwhile, the Craft Cocktail movement was in full bloom. To oversimplify drastically, a lot of bartenders grew tired of mixing vodka with fruit juices and liqueurs to make sticky-sweet and obvious concoctions with names like Screaming Orgasm, Sex on the Beach, or Harvey Wallbanger. They wanted to regain their self-respect . Looking backward in time they rediscovered drinks that honored the alcohol in them. Drinks with names a grownup would feel comfortable ordering in public.


Not only did they succeed at all of the above, but by creating a market for sophisticated drinks, these heroic baristas resurrected extinct spirits like Old Tom Gin and liqueurs like Crème de Violette. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Martinez or an Aviation, you have reason to be grateful to them all.


The movement can be divided into two factions: One employs the finest and freshest ingredients to create classic cocktails, many of which had passed into near-oblivion. The other employs the finest and freshest ingredients to create new cocktails inspired by those classics  but tweaked with combinations unknown to our revered ancestral  topers. Which cult you prefer is strictly a personal choice. I choose to defer to whichever bar I happen to be in at the time.


To honor the completely mad crafters of artisanal cocktails, you could do worse than to raise a Perfect Black Manhattan, a variant of a drink invented in San Francisco in 2015 with dry vermouth replacing half the Averna to keep its flavor from overwhelming the rye:


Perfect Black Manhattan

2 ounces rye whiskey

½ ounce Averna

½ ounce dry vermouth

1 dash Angostura bitters

1 dash orange bitters

spiced cherry


directions: mix, chill, and serve with a spiced cherry for garnish


This is a beautifully dark cocktail with an appropriately bitter heart. It would be the perfect drink to mix to celebrate the end of an affair you should never have begun. Like life itself, it can be savored despite the bitterness and, on occasion, even because of it.


On which note, this chronicle comes—gracefully, I hope—to an end. It has been a long and bumpy road that led from the barely drinkable swill our Colonial forebears tossed back with depraved abandon to the artisanal and hand-crafted (whatever that may mean in this context) ryes and rye cocktails that now grace our better watering holes.


No matter what the coming decades may bring, it may be confidently predicted that they will pass in the twinkling of an eye. When they do, parts of this chronicle will doubtless seem quaint and, for reasons unforeseeable, out of date. So be it. But, barring the extinction of the human race, it seems a safe bet that rye whiskey will endure.


To which pleasant prospect, I raise my glass. Slainte!




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