Rye is making a comeback. The brown spirit, once seen as fit only for the frontier saloon, is taking its place among the small-batch bourbons and single-malt whiskeys behind the bars at hip watering holes across the country.
What makes rye different than other whiskeys? Quite simply, the grain: just as bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, so rye must be made from at least 51% rye, which adds its own distinctive taste. In a recent column for the New York Times, bartender-writer Rosie Schaap claimed rye's "dryness and earthiness...spice and faint sourness" was quite irresistible to her, as was its "wonderful chewiness."
So now's your chance to get bragging rights for the next cool thing. Even better, small-batch ryes can still be had for a reasonable price, especially compared to cult-status bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle. The latest addition to the rapidly-expanding rye pantheon is Bender's Rye out of San Francisco. Just launched in November 2013, this complex, 96-proof spirit is made to stand up and be counted in a cocktail, whether it's paired with sweet vermouth in a classic Manhattan or laced with absinthe and a dash of bitters in a Sazerac. Notes of dried apricot, toffee, and orange show up in a sip of remarkable smoothness for the proof.
The rye is produced by the two-man team of Christopher Cohen and Carl Bender. Bender, a graphic designer and artist, is responsible for the brand's whimsical, approachable labeling. The stylized face on the bottle -- complete with watchcap, beard, and pipe -- is based on Bender. The liquor-world savvy comes from the Saskatchewan-born Cohen, who has worked in marketing for numerous beverage companies, including both St. Germain (of elderflower-liqueur fame) and Fever-tree, makers of high-end mixers like tonic water and ginger ale.
The whiskey starts with Canadian-grown grains that are distilled, aged, and custom-blended to order by a distillery in Alberta. Cohen and Bender spent months working on the blend, eventually tasting 52 different combinations before settling on the current Bender's Rye blend. The barrels are sent from the Canadian distillery to a local distillery that also makes such San Francisco-themed spirits as Emperor Norton Absinthe and Bummer and Lazarus Gin (named after Norton's dogs). There, it's blended with Hetch Hetchy's finest snowmelt (that's SF tap water to you) and bottled--about 3248 bottles for this batch.