Say what you like about the bourbon boom of the past few decades, for drinkers and mixologists alike, the rye renaissance has been equally exciting. Indeed, the revival of the style owes a great debt to the bartending community, which embraced spicy and grassy whiskey to shed light once again on forgotten classics like the Sazerac, Old Pal and Vieux Carré.
This renewed interest has seen major US distillers relaunch historic brands and others launching new products into the space. Walk through the liquor aisles these days and you’ll come across more rye labels — almost all of them green — than at any time in living memory. And drinkers, apparently, can’t get enough. Since 2009, rye whiskey sales volume in the United States has increased by 1706%, reaching 1.6 million 9-litre cases by the end of 2021, according to to the Distilled Spirits Board.
A few steps north of the border, a Canadian bartender Shane Behan is well placed to offer advice on how to explore rye and get the most out of a bottle of Redemption, Rittenhouse or the trusty Old Overholt. Beehan has worked in hospitality for 15 years – 10 of them behind the bar – and now wears many hats, including consultant, brand ambassador and Nova Scotia beverage manager. Salvador Restaurant group. He also happens to live in a country where rye is used as a synonym for whiskey in general.
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Channeling both his nation’s love for the spirit and a personal passion for classic rye cocktails, Beehan sat down with VinePair to help compile this ultimate rye whiskey drinking guide.
Canadian Rye Whiskey vs American Rye Whiskey
Those already familiar with rye whiskey will know that, despite Canada’s love of rye, bottles labeled as such in the country may not be classified as such in the United States. The quick and loose use of the word in Canada is reflected somewhat in the regulations surrounding its production there.
As a quick primer, one of the many factors that govern the production of rye whiskey in the United States is the use of at least 51% of the grain in a mash bill. This is not the case on the other side of the border. “The main difference between Canadian and American rye is that we don’t tend to use a dough of different grains,” says Beehan. “We basically ferment and distill each grain individually, then blend after maturation.”
This final blend is also not bound by a minimum rye whiskey content – even though it is labeled with the term. For much of modern whiskey history, Canadian distillers instead produced a mostly corn-based “rye” whiskey that was simply influenced in terms of flavor with the spicy grain.
Still, Beehan says the country’s leading modern brands are taking a different approach. “We really went all out on our rye and the majority of our whiskeys today which I think are our best products are 100% rye,” he says.
As confusing as this brief detour may be, it is important to recognize the distinctions. And for the purposes of this piece, any future mention of rye whiskey refers to bottles where the grain is a majority, and whose profiles reflect its pungency.
How to taste rye whiskey
On that note, Beehan offers plenty of advice on how to sniff and sip whiskey neat – an important first step in any education. “To appreciate a cocktail, you must first appreciate the base spirit,” he says.
This familiarization begins with sensing the “herby, peppery and spicy” characteristics of rye whisky, he says. To identify them in a glass – whether it’s Glencairn crystal or low-maintenance rock glass – he recommends exercising a little restraint.
“Don’t stick your nose in the glass because it will burn,” he says, referring to the alcohol content rather than its peppery aromas. “Gently sniff [a short distance] away, to prepare your palate and prime your ability to taste.
Restraint remains the name of the game when you’re sipping rye. Before refueling, Beehan advises taking a very small sip, working the liquid around your mouth, and then swallowing (if you’re in a situation where you can drink alcohol).
“If your palate is raw and you introduce something as intense as rye whiskey, your brain is like, ‘What’s going on? How do I taste this? he says. “Once your tongue has acclimatized, that second sip gets you all those flavors out.”
The best rye whiskey cocktails
Sipping neat spirits on a regular basis might not be everyone’s plate of poutine, but Beehan insists there’s service for everyone.
Rendered in a Whiskey Sour or Whiskey Smash, the added sugar and citrus in these drinks help tame the rougher edges of the rye. “The Whiskey Smash is such a beautiful drink,” he says. “If you confuse the lemon, you get the oils and the juice. Add mint: it’s fresh, it’s lively and it’s a great way to start enjoying rye.
But Beehan remains a cocktail classic at heart, and for his loon, there’s nothing more magical than a Manhattan. There’s the historical connection to begin with, with the golden age of cocktails coinciding with an earlier boom in rye production, he says. Then there is the adaptability of the Manhattan as a model.
Outsource the sweet vermouth and split support between Averna and Punt e Mes and you’ll soon be shaking hands with a longshoreman; opt for a full ounce of Averna instead and you have the darker, brooding Black Manhattan; using dry vermouth instead of sweet, along with maraschino liqueur and Amer Picon, you transport across the East River to Brooklyn cocktail.
Finally – this is a Canadian-led exploration – we can’t forget the combination of rye, Fernet-Branca, simple syrup and Angostura, better known as Toronto. (Despite its name, it’s not known if this drink was invented in the city, and some theories suggest its origins lie in London.)
“All [these drinks] are basically three- or four-ingredient stirred cocktails, and they really bring out the base spirit,” says Beehan.
Equally complex and fruity combinations await you in the lesser known cocktails Algonquin, Ward Eight and Scofflaw. (Save time to Google those.) And let’s not forget one of the most iconic of all rye cocktails, which also spotlights a surprisingly fitting partner for the spirit: the Sazerac.
While sitting at the polar ends of the spectrum in some respects, Beehan says the bright profile of wormwood pairs perfectly with the dark spice of rye, and cites the rattlesnake as another example.
“In my humble opinion,” concludes Beehan, “rye is one of the most versatile spirits for cocktails.”