See, this here is MxMo territory, see, and in this here New Depression, see, we like our drinks like we liked our women (before we couldn’t afford that personal hygiene stuff they’re always bugging us about): strong, fast, and cheap.  What, you thought I was going to reverse-sexist that, somehow?  Hah!  Sexism is the new gender-transcendence.  The fictional instance of Matthew Rowley, this month’s host, totally agrees with me.

Seriously, though (hah, we are talking about drinking booze, for fun; this is never serious), the theme this month is “Hard Drinks for Hard Times”, a situation which I sympathize with, although, since I am a good-for-nothing, poor grad student, that sympathy is more like a “hah, welcome to my world of less than $20k a year, y’all!”  Interestingly enough, though, I am a grad student who is studying whiskey.  Your suspicions were right; there is someone who gets to do all those cool jobs.  So I have a recommendation for these hard drinks, which are drunk in hard times: rye.  Rye whiskey.  Let’s talk about it, everyone.

If you’re not a stranger to the revived cocktail scene (pretty soon, if everyone keeps fetishizing Speakeasies and other relics from the early part of last century, I’m going to start calling it the undead cocktail scene), you’ll know that rye is hotter than the surface of the sun.  But what you may not know is that it is also really cheap!  Seriously, you can get a bottle of Rittenhouse Bonded 100-proof for less than $20, and it is a whiskey which has won awards.  Like, multiple awards.  That is a good deal!  Sure, you can spend more than $100 on a bottle of Black Maple Hill (probably worth every penny, too, according to The Cocktail Chronicles, whose rye tasting is frighteningly comprehensive), but you can also drink a lot of really good whiskey for not that much.  Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Old Overholt also produce perfectly respectable ryes at or under that magic $20 mark, and for a couple dollars more you can get your hands on some really decent stuff from Russell’s Reserve (Wild Turkey’s premium label), Sazerac (the 6-year), and Templeton (a cool new distillery with annoying hype from Iowa).  Just, please, whatever you do, don’t buy (ri)1.  Because what.

As is my wont, I’m going to talk a little bit of technical details, so that you can spout this stuff at cocktail parties when someone tries to make you a Manhattan with Maker’s Mark (that is, if you don’t really like the people at the party and want to be that guy).  If this stuff bores you, and you want to just get to the drink, feel free to skip to the cocktail, in bold, at the bottom  Don’t just judge it from the ingredients – it’s one of those deceptively simple drinks that really plays to the strengths of its base liquor.

Rye whiskey is defined by the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Part 5.22.1(i) as

“Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160[deg] proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125[deg] proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

As an interesting aside, note that the federal code (“The Law”) uses the “whisky” without the ‘e’, something which may elicit angry comments (at least when used in reference to bourbon) from the community of intensely annoying people who have time to write letters to newspapers.

Furthermore, the code goes on to say (in part 5.22.1(iii)) that straight whiskey must be barreled for at least 2 years to be considered “straight” whiskey.  I have to confess that I don’t know where the “bottled in bond” section of the Code is, although Wikipedia claims it is also in Title 27, right around the same area.  Consider finding that part homework, although I’ll go ahead and note that, according to the language in the Wikipedia article, bottled in bond means

To be labeled as “Bottled-in-Bond” or “Bonded,” the whiskey must be straight whiskey that is the product of one distillation season and one distiller at one distillery. It must have been stored (i.e., aged) in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years and bottled at 100 (U.S.) proof (50% alcohol by volume). The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery (by DSP number) where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled.

So there you have it.  If you’ve ever (drunkenly or otherwise) regarded your bottle of Rittenhouse or Laird’s Apple Brandy and wondered just what it meant that it was “Bottled in Bond” (and also why it was so high proof), now you know.

It’s also worth noting, as the last part of this insanely long history/law lesson, that rye whiskey was the original whiskey of the United States, made from rye grown in the original colonies.  As corn became the dominant cereal crop of the US, bourbon came to supplant rye.  So rye’s position as an ingredient in many pre-Prohibition cocktails is easily understood.

Now here’s the tricky part.  You may have noticed, above, that rye must be 51% rye, and that bourbon must be 51% corn, but, hey, that other 49% is up for grabs.  Also, both are distilled to 160 proof, leaving most of the distinguishing flavor compounds behind.   So, if you like bourbon, chances are you’ll like rye, but, here’s the kicker, you’ll look a lot cooler liking it.  And, if you’re smart, you’ll pay a lot less money, too.  Nice, huh?

For example, use a cheap-ish rye, say, the Rittenhouse Bonded (which can be had for $15 or less, and wins medals at all kinds of fancy, San Francisco liquor shows), to make an Old-Fashioned which will knock your socks off.  And, if you’re bored with Old-Fashioneds, try this variation on Dave Wondrich’s Tombstone (a shaken Old-Fashioned).  It’s a big difference, I promise.

Tombstone #2 (with Apologies to Dave Wondrich)

Tombstone #2

  • 2 oz rye whiskey (preferably 100 proof)
  • 1/4 oz cinnamon syrup (just a hot/cold infused simple syrup, ‘s easy)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters (or other aromatic bitters)
    Add all ingredients to a shaker filled with ice.  Shake well, for at least 30 seconds.  Strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with an orange or lemon twist.

Nutty, a little sweet, and with a beautiful cinnamon blast from the syrup and the bitters.  Sure, sure, purists will say this is nothing more than a shaken Rye Cocktail, but let me point out that, by shaking, you get a really nice amount of water into the drink, something which, to be honest, the 100-proof stuff benefits from.  Just think of it like the drop of water you put into a single malt Scotch.  Except that, appropriately for the times, this drink is a cheap thrill.