In the liquor industry we commonly refer to the major categories of rye, bourbon, and scotch as “brown” liquors for the obvious reason of their color. Throughout the 19th and earlier parts of the 20th centuries, these were the alcohols to enjoy either “straight up” or in one of the classic cocktails like an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan. The Old-Fashioned uses the original formula for cocktails: alcohol, sugar, bitters, and water or soda. Over the course of the 19th century, the word “cocktail” became generic for any mixed drink. When a bar customer wanted an original, back-to-basics alcoholic beverage, he or she would ask for an “old-fashioned cocktail.”
Rye whiskey was once popular all over America, but during Prohibition it became nearly non-existent. Due to the 18th Amendment passed in 1919, American distilleries closed their doors. With the repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933, most brown liquors became steadily overshadowed by that newly-emerging other-colored alcohol category—the “white” liquors of gin and vodka. One brown liquor, bourbon, managed to stay in the race. Possibly due to its natural corn-based sweetness or active promotion by salesmen, it was able to remain somewhat desirable until its revival in the 1980s. It has since moved up with the frontrunners. Rye faded slowly but surely into the background during this period.
In 2006, Eric Asimov, the knowledgeable wine/liquor columnist of the New York Times, declared rye “the world’s great forgotten spirit,” and proceeded to conduct a tasting of ryes for his column. That tasting event, along with several other pertinent articles by noted liquor professionals, started to build more interest in rye, and so America’s distillers began to increase their production. Paul Joseph, president of CVI Brands, told the Times in the 2006 Asimov article that “people are gearing up,” and predicted that “there will be an overabundance of whiskey in five years.”
There is now a renewed interest in rye and rye-based cocktails. Kris Comstock, brand manager at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky, explains that (although known for its bourbons) this distillery has expanded its variety of rye whiskeys. The continued rise in the enjoyment of high level bourbon brands “has piqued people’s curiosity,” he says. “It’s opened up folks’ eyes to American whiskey in general. As they learn more, they try more, and it whets their palate.”
Avant-garde cocktail menus contain a growing number of drinks that feature the spicy flavors of rye whiskey, and many of these rye recipes have been revived from old bar manuals by today’s more adventurous bartenders. Most of the classic old whiskey drinks were made with rye; as many as eight out of ten different cocktails were rye-based. Many serious cocktail bars and restaurants have a greatly expanded variety of different types and styles of cocktails, and bartenders now encourage bourbon and scotch lovers to sample rye-based cocktails.
Production rules for rye and bourbon are tightly regulated by the U.S. federal government’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). Aging in new oak barrels for at least two years is required for both, along with a minimum of 51 percent corn to be called straight bourbon and 51 percent rye to be called straight rye. The rules for scotch are made in Scotland, the main one being that a single malt scotch whiskey must be made from 100 percent malted barley. It is interesting to note the basic flavor profiles of these three brown liquors. Bourbon shows sweeter flavors due to the inherent sweetness of corn itself, while rye (distilled from cereal grains) often shows notes of grass and spice. Scotch is unique due to the flavors of peat, iodine and smoke derived from its unique production process and physical location (its water source is critical).
The universe of bourbon drinkers has also noticeably expanded. In 2007 Eric Asimov wrote: “The image and enjoyment of bourbon was recently enhanced through the introduction of small-batch, single-barrel and special-selection offerings. These are marketing terms for what the industry calls high-end and super premium bourbons. The whiskeys are chosen to emphasize complexity and even elegance, a quality that has rarely been associated with bourbon and a word that no doubt panics bourbon marketers who still favor the rural look of bib overalls and muddy boots.”
Scotland’s contemporary scholar, David Daiches, said that “The proper drinking of scotch whiskey is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture.” According to Gavin Hewitt, CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, it is not surprising that the scotch whiskey industry is currently reliving its best days, the “second golden age,” following the growth enjoyed in the 1970s. “We are appealing to the emerging markets,” Hewitt further explains. “We’re appealing to the affluent, the middle-class people who are aspirational, people who see scotch whiskey as the drink of choice. They can afford it, and it means they’re part of a global network. Moreover, it works as both a means of celebration and sharing, and (unlike champagne) it’s well-suited to drowning one’s sorrows when times are not so good.”
These three “brown” liquors—rye, bourbon, and scotch—are experiencing much popularity and interest. If you have not yet tried one of them, or in some cases “gone back” to some of your old favorites, you may want to order a cocktail or pick up a bottle. You are likely to quite enjoy it.
by Len Gulino, “The Wine Tutor” at Harry’s Wine Market in Fairfield, CT.