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.
"The next batch, we're actually buying some barrels at various char and toast levels, and we're going to experiment. So the next batch is going to be slightly different--we're going to age some of it, again, anywhere from three to six months," said Cohen.
It's really all about their palates, they agree. "We had a joke in the beginning that if this doesn't work out, we'd have a lifetime supply of something we liked," said Cohen. Sitting at Berkeley's Revival Bar and Kitchen, they were tasting what ended up being their final blend. "It was a little bit edgy," remembered Cohen, of their 85% rye/15% corn mix. "The corn adds a certain kind of funky energy; you don't want to add too much or it can overpower the rye." They had a moment of wondering if they should follow the crowd, and make a rye that tasted more like the popular ryes already on the market. But only a moment; instead, they stuck with their own blend, trusting that customers, once they'd tasted it, would come back for something unique.
Already, Bender's has been catching on with local bartenders. It's on the bar at La Folie, Park Tavern, Dogpatch Saloon, Credo, 83 Proof, Perry's, Cigar Bar and Grill in San Francisco, and in the East Bay, at Pican, the Hotsy Totsy Club, and Ramen Shop. They've found it to be particularly popular with women, but San Francisco's overall creative spirit and willingness to get in on the next new thing has made the city a friendly place to find homes for those 3000+ bottles. Eventually, they hope to devote themselves full-time to the project; so far, they both work other jobs and take care of Bender's in their free time.
As for cocktails, rye shows off best in straightforward, spirit-dominated drinks that let its raspy, leather-and-toffee notes come to the fore. The Brain Duster, below, is a high-octane collision between two classic rye cocktails, the Manhattan and the Sazerac.
Adapted from The Art of Vintage Cocktails, by Stephanie Rosenbaum
With its autumn-leaf color and rye-and-vermouth base, this 1895 cocktail from the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, could easily pass for a Manhattan. But add an ounce of absinthe and the Brain Duster is revealed as an entirely different--and much more lethal--drink.
1 oz rye whiskey
1 oz absinthe
1 oz sweet vermouth
Dash of bitters
Twist of lemon peel, for garnish
Combine rye, absinthe, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Stir well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.