(NYTimes) - Perhaps you had a wonderful gift in mind for your cocktail-loving, whiskey-sipping friend: an excellent bottle of nicely aged rye.
Good luck finding it. You will need it.
Oh, you can find aged rye out there, but supplies are short, and what is available is expensive. Michter's bottles a 10-year-old rye, which costs about US$300 (S$426.84). That is actually on the cheap side.
Eighteen-year-old Sazerac Kentucky Straight Rye will set you back around US$1,000, while 13-year-old Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve Rye goes for US$1,200 to US$2,400.
For whiskey lovers these days, well-aged rye is a kind of holy grail. While the hunt for a rare bottle is not exactly a new thing, the prices do indicate a quest that has spiraled out of control.
Young Rye Whiskeys Three stars Knob Creek Straight Rye Whiskey 100 proof, US$38 Spicy, fruity and complex, with notes of citrus, coconut and toffee. (Clermont, Kentucky.)
Best value: Three stars Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye 90 proof, US$30 Sweet, spicy and discernibly young, with lively flavours of cinnamon, oak, citrus and grain. (Clermont, Kentucky)
Three stars Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Rye 90.4 proof, US$45 Rich, smooth and complex, with sweet, well-integrated lingering flavours of dried fruit and leather. (Versailles, Kentucky.)
Three stars New York Distilling Company Ragtime Rye 90.4 proof, US$45 Some raw, oaky aromas, but sweetly fruity, spicy and complex on the palate. (Brooklyn, New York.)
Two-and-a-half stars Michter's U.S. 1 Straight Rye 84.8 proof, US$44 Very young, with classic, lingering flavors of spices, fruits and leather. (Louisville, Kentucky.)
Two-and-a-half stars Bulleit 95 Rye Frontier Whiskey 90 proof, US$44 Mellow yet potent, with flavours of cinnamon, coffee and caramel. (Lawrenceburg, Indiana.)
Two-and-a-half stars Few Rye Whiskey 93 proof, $60 Warm and spicy, with flavours of licorice, dark chocolate and oak. (Evanston, Illinois.)
Two-and-a-half stars (Ri) Aromas of caramel and vanilla, with spicy flavours of root beer and nuts. (Clermont, Kentucky)
Two stars Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Single Barrel 80 proof, US$45 Fruity and a bit sweet, with flavours of chocolate, almonds and banana. (Purcellville, Virginia.)
Two stars Rittenhouse Straight Rye 100 Proof, $25 Spicy, fruity and nutty, but a little savage in its potency. (Louisville, Kentucky)
What the Stars Mean: Ratings, up to four stars, reflect the panel's reaction to the spirits, which were tasted with names concealed. The ryes represent a selection generally available in good retail shops and restaurants and on the internet. Prices are those paid in the New York region.
Tasting coordinator: Bernard Kirsch
The spirits panel last reviewed rye 10 years ago, and even then, the supply of aged rye was dwindling. The revival of this once down-and-out spirit surprised distillers, who had precious little aged rye whiskey on hand to slake this renewed thirst.
Nonetheless, back then, we were still able to find aged rye without too much trouble. We had three 21-year-olds, along with that Van Winkle Family Reserve (just US$38 in 2006) and our No. 1 bottle, a Black Maple Hill Single Barrel 18-year-old rye, for US$84.
Whiskey brands generally come from two sources: Distillers who make the whiskey and bottle it themselves, like the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, which issues the Van Winkle whiskeys. Or independent bottlers, who do not make whiskey but search the world for stray barrels, which they buy, bottle and sell under their own brand names.
Black Maple Hill, for example, was bottled by CVI Brands in San Carlos, California, which would occasionally purchase barrels of aged rye and bourbon whiskey from Kentucky sources. No longer. Today, if you find Black Maple Hill rye, it is a young whiskey made in Oregon.
The process of aging whiskey, alas, cannot be rushed. With rye soaring in popularity, distillers faced a question: Should they invest in the production of rye and set aside barrels, delaying a return on their investment for 10 years or longer?
Maybe a few barrels. But for the most part, they have churned out the whiskey and raked in the profits, aging it in charred new oak barrels for at least two years (the legal minimum for it to be called straight whiskey), but often no more than four.
Those, at least, are the big distillers. The wave of small craft distillers that has swept across the country in recent years has taken up rye as well. For them, until they are well established, holding on to barrels of rye for even that minimum of two years can be a financial hardship. It is no surprise, then, that most of the dozens of brands of rye widely available today are less than five years old.
The spirits panel returned to rye in late November, tasting 20 bottles of young rye from both long-established big distillers and craft distillers. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two drinks writers and authors, David Wondrich (who was with us for the 2006 tasting) and Robert Simonson, who writes often for The Times.
With few ryes nowadays tempered and grown complex with age, it is hard to think of it as a sipping spirit. But younger ryes are enormously appealing in cocktails, and any of our favourites would make an excellent gift for the mixology minded.
It was the cocktail renaissance, we all agreed, that most contributed to the revival of rye, which 20 years ago survived primarily in old-man bars and in drinks like rye and ginger ale.
Back then, much of the drinking world assumed cocktails like the Manhattan and the old-fashioned were bourbon drinks. It took a new generation of ardent, history-minded bartenders to remind the world that both of these drinks, and quite a few other classics, were originally conceived with rye. Tasting these drinks in both their rye and bourbon versions is a quick study in the differences between these closely related whiskeys.
A Manhattan made with bourbon luxuriates in the spirit's sweetness. It is smooth and mellow, almost smug. By comparison, a rye Manhattan is jangly and nervous, showing that whiskey's characteristic dry, spicy, grassy flavours. Many people seem to prefer bourbon, but give me rye every time.
We were all struck by the number of rye brands available now, and, with roughly 1,300 craft distillers in the country today making everything from gin to whiskey, up from maybe a dozen 10 years ago, we conjectured that many consumers may be overwhelmed with choices.
"Consumers have an awful lot to choose from today," Simonson said. "Yet with fewer benchmark brands, consumers don't know what to expect."
Indeed, many of the ryes we tasted did not have the assertive rye personality that I have come to love. Some, including our No. 3 bottle, the Woodford Reserve, reminded us of the sweeter flavours of bourbon. This is not necessarily surprising. To be called rye, the whiskey must be fermented from a grain mixture of at least 51 per cent rye. The rest can be any combination of corn, wheat or barley. Bourbon, by contrast, must be at least 51 per cent corn.
The Woodford rye was 53 per cent rye, potentially very similar to bourbon. Some of the other ryes in our tasting were 100 per cent rye, or very close.
Other ryes reminded us of rum, or tasted overwhelmingly of bananas or were odd in some other way. These tended to come from the craft distillers, who, like craft brewers in the early days of the beer revolution, have yet to achieve precision and reliability in their work.
"It's like catching this category in the 10th grade," Wondrich said. "Some have already matured into their adult personas, some are still kids, and others are in transition, not as assured as you want, still hesitant."
Still, he said he was far more optimistic about the future quality of rye than he was a few years ago.
Even so, the old pros led the way in our tasting. Our top two ryes came from the same big distillery, Beam Suntory in Clemont, Kentucky. No. 1 was the Knob Creek with rye's classic spicy, fruity, complex profile. The complexity suggested a little age, but Knob Creek says only that it was aged "patiently".
No. 2 was its sibling, Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye, an unabashedly young, exuberant spirit that was bottled at a slightly lower strength than the Knob Creek, 90 proof rather than 100. It was also our best value at US$30.
Beam Suntory had one other brand in our top 10, the (Ri)1 at No. 8. It is hard to know what to make of this whiskey. It is touted as an "ultra-premium" bottle, a sort of meaningless marketing category, but it is not priced much differently than the Jim Beam. It is less spirited as well, though nicely complex and clean.
Our top craft entry was the No. 4 Ragtime Rye from New York Distilling in Brooklyn, New York, which, though young, raw and oaky, showed great distinction and potential. It would be wonderful to see this rye at 10 years rather than at three-ish.
Two other craft ryes made our list, the warm, spicy Few from Evanston, Illinois, at No. 7 and the fruity, slightly sweet Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye from Purcellville, Virginia, at No. 9.
One anomaly is the number of different brands sold with potentially the same whiskey in the bottle. No. 6 on our list was the Bulleit 95 Rye, so-called because its grain mixture is 95 per cent rye. Bulleit is a brand owned by Diageo, which buys the spirit from Midwest Grain Products, a huge distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, just over the Kentucky border.
Midwest also makes the ryes sold as Redemption and George Dickel, both of which were also in our tasting. They differ slightly - Redemption is 92 proof rather than the 90 in the other two, and the Dickel was charcoal filtered. But it is the same 95 per cent rye. Neither Redemption nor Dickel made our top 10.
It would be nice for consumers if all whiskeys were a little more transparent about where they were distilled, where they were bottled and how long they were aged. That would be an unexpected gift. Until then, we will have to settle for a bottle of good rye.
Recipe Pairing: Rye And Ginger Cake
Rye and Ginger Cake
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1 cup (150 g) chopped crystallised ginger
1/2 cup (75 g) golden raisins
2/3 cup (156ml) rye whiskey
170 g unsalted butter, softened, plus butter for greasing pan
2 cups (240g) all-purpose flour, plus flour for pan
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (213g) light brown sugar, packed
3 large eggs
3 tbsp (38g) granulated sugar
1. Heat oven to 176 degrees Celsius. Place crystallised ginger and raisins in a small saucepan. Add half the whiskey, bring to a simmer, remove from heat and set aside.
2. Butter a loaf pan that is 21.5 by 11 by 7cms. Dust with flour.
3. Sift flour, baking powder, ground ginger and salt together. Set aside.
4. By hand or machine, beat butter and brown sugar together until well blended and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in flour mixture. Fold in chopped ginger and raisins along with the soaking whiskey. Spread batter in pan and bake about 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.
5. Place pan on a rack to cool. When cool, remove cake from pan and place it, top side up, back on the rack. Place a sheet of foil or parchment under the rack to protect your countertop.
6. In a small saucepan, bring remaining whiskey and the granulated sugar to a simmer and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Use a thin wooden skewer to poke holes in the cake. Brush on sugar and whiskey glaze. Allow to set another 10 to 15 minutes before cutting and serving cake. If well wrapped in foil and allowed to rest a day or two without cutting, the flavors of the cake will ripen and mellow.
I had an uncle who always drank "rye and ginger". Back in those days, the rye part usually meant Canadian Club, a blend, since real American rye whiskeys were scarce, having fallen victim to Prohibition and failing to rebound as scotch and vodka took over. The ginger was Canada Dry ginger ale.
Lately, I have thought of Uncle Lou's favourite drink, as I have come to appreciate how well the cool spice of ginger harmonises with the earthy, often honeyed richness of many brown spirits, especially the excellent ryes now being made.
I have recently even swapped out the sweet vermouth for ginger liqueur in a rye-based perfect Manhattan, with a slice of crystallised ginger as garnish. And I might add a modest measure of the liqueur to some Michter's on the rocks.
Now I have gone the rye-and-ginger route for a cake that combines both. It is not quite a fruitcake, but it is one that delivers some holiday cheer all the same. Serve it with a tot of your favourite rye or Knob Creek, which was one of ours. - FLORENCE FABRICANT