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Special to the Tribune
November 10, 1999

Mike Miller, who serves more than 100 whiskies at Delilah's, 2771 N. Lincoln Ave., remembers some guys who came into the bar recently and wanted shots of whiskey. Miller poured them some. They drank it and said, "Wow! What was that?" Miller reported. He laughed and replied, "That's rye, boys."

You don't know about rye? Rye whiskey is pure America. German immigrant distillers warmed Washington's troops at Valley Forge with it, and some of those same troops brought fire and the gun to western Pennsylvania in the Whiskey Rebellion because of it. Drunk from a tin cup or right from the bottle, rye was the everyday drink of a country at ease with spirits.

But Prohibition almost killed it. Smuggled Canadian whiskey, often rye-based but blended with cheaper grain spirits to lighten it, trained Americans away from the bold blast of rye. Ironically, when most people do call for rye these days, they expect to get Canadian.

Bourbon is fighting its way back to the respect it once enjoyed, and it looks as if rye is finally turning some heads as well.

"Oh yeah, over the last couple of years there's been more attention paid to rye," said Joe Congiusti, the "whiskey guy" at Sam's Wine & Spirits. "Whether it's old people coming out of the Scotch closet and drinking rye again, or the younger ones trying mixed drinks, everybody's experimenting; they want to try new stuff."

It's new stuff that's really old stuff. Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey, said he makes Wild Turkey Rye because "it's one of the things we've always had. It's been in our portfolio as long as I can remember. It's not a real big seller, but it sells fairly well. We make it about three or four days a year."

Rye doesn't have the sweet, heavy richness of Bourbon, but it does have a sweetness all its own. It costs about the same as Bourbon, from about $9 for a 4-year-old standard bottling, to more than $20 for older, higher-proof examples.

Ask Russell what difference changing the mashbill from more than 51 percent corn in Bourbon to more than 51 percent rye makes: "Well, that's kind of hard to say. That's like eating white bread and then rye bread. It's different, but how do you describe that difference?"

Congiusti has an idea. "I think of Bourbon as heavy, maple-syrup sweet. I think of rye as sugar-sweet. It's lighter, more delicate and pretty smooth. It doesn't give you the hot flashes like Bourbon."

Although rye distillers used to dot the map of Maryland and Pennsylvania, there are only four distillers who sell rye whiskey today: Wild Turkey, Jim Beam (Jim Beam Rye and Old Overholt), Heaven Hill (Pikesville and Rittenhouse), and Old Potrero, the tiny distilling offshoot of Anchor Brewing.

There also are two bottlers of rye whiskey, Hirsch and Old Rip Van Winkle, neither of which will reveal where they get their stocks of rye.

What Julian Van Winkle will talk about is the age of his rye whiskey. Aged for 13 years, it is the oldest rye on the market.

"I had a customer in Japan who was interested in older ryes," Van Winkle said. "I really didn't know much about rye myself, but I found some, tried it, and was just blown away."

Old Rip Van Winkle has been doing well at Delilah's, Miller says.

"The first week I had a bottle of Van Winkle Rye on the shelf I sold a bottle, and that's without us doing anything to promote it."

Miller thinks that's why rye doesn't sell more. It isn't there to buy.

"The consumer isn't driving the whiskey market. The consumer is drinking what's available. But if you go to 100 taverns in Chicago, you'll see maybe five bottles of rye."

Think you'd like to try some rye? Congiusti sells 10 varieties at Sam's, and suggests Old Overholt as a good starter. "Then work your way up in age." Miller stocks five ryes at Delilah's if you'd like to find one you like before stocking the home bar.

"It's an icon," Miller says. "You can't watch a Bogey movie without hearing `Gimme a rye!' It's a weird animal, its own animal."

That's rye, boys.


Oh, the poetry a good whiskey can awaken!

Old Overholt: A light, spicy aroma with notes of honey and dried lavender. The taste is a brisk wake-up from the lulling aroma: sweet (with touches of caramel) and spicy. My pick for the classic Rye Presbyterian highball with ginger ale and ice.

Jim Beam Rye: Light aromas of honey, a touch of marshmallow, and that slick scent of rye. Oily in the mouth, strangely reminiscent of the seaweed and brine of an island single-malt Scotch, it produces a delayed explosion of rough spice and bright honey at the back of the mouth, finishing with a rye bite and a suggestion of peppermint.

Wild Turkey Rye: Full-bore 101 proof. A rich, sweet aroma. The mouth gets a bold wash of hot honey with touches of vanilla (a benefit of five to six years in the barrel), edged by a flinty solidity like rye-laced steel.

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (13 years old): What a difference nine more years in the wood makes. This nose is Opium to the 4-year-old's Chanel No. 19, richer, more voluptuous, vanilla, molasses, oak. There's a rush of well-muscled honey, without the sunny sweetness, and spinning through it are notes of pepper and peppermint oil. Then finally, a real taste of rye.

Old Potrero: Barrel proof (124 proof), and explosive with it. The nose goes on forever, multiple layers of honeyed rye, but eventually you have to dive in and taste. At 124 proof it can be a bit of a shock, but hang in there; such a young whiskey has a lot to say about spice, mint and sweet, sweet rye. It's a rush.

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