Bye, bye miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye
For many listeners to Don McLean's "American Pie," the lyric "whiskey and rye" may seem a bit redundant. And while the gulf between the typical American bourbon and a true American rye (made with at least 51 percent rye grain) is not a huge one, it's significant – the two spirits have different flavors and uses.
The most popular whiskey in the country before Prohibition, rye's relatively austere character led to its downfall. The sweeter, mellower corn-based bourbon better suited the nation's increasing love of sweet drinks, and rye took on a seedy reputation.
This is a shame, because in contrast to corn-based bourbon, rye will generally impart a drier, spicier, and/or fruitier quality to whatever drink it's mixed in. It can be a more sophisticated and complicated experience, one that recalls a bygone cocktail culture that is once again coming back into vogue.
April 2006 may have been the defining moment of the Rye revolution. A 100-proof rye called Rittenhouse (made by Heaven Hill) was named “North American Whiskey of the Year” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and interest in ryes surged. In the years that have followed, craft ryes have boomed and multiplied as the style has soared from Skid Row to chic.
Familiar drinks like the Sazerac take on a new dimension when made with rye -- the subtlety and restraint of the beverage can really shine in a simple, old school cocktail. Sometimes tapping the new thing just means going back to the source.