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It used to be said that only old men drink rye, sitting alone down at the end of the bar, but that's no longer the case as bartenders and patrons set aside the gins and the vodkas and rediscover the pleasures of one of America's old-fashioned favorites.
Whiskey from rye grain was what most distilleries made before Prohibition. Then, after repeal in 1933, bourbon, made from corn, became more popular. Corn was easier to grow, and the taste was sweeter.
To be sure, rye whiskey production is only a drop compared with the rivers of bourbon produced now, although rye whiskey sales have tripled in the past five years.
You can even find rye in the tiny farm town of Templeton, Iowa. It's said to be the same taste as the bootleg brew that Templeton was known for during Prohibition. They called it "The Good Stuff." It was popular in Chicago, a favorite of Al Capone. Templeton Rye, legal these days, and sold in Iowa and 11 other states, is made from a grandfather's secret recipe. The actual production, though, takes place at a distillery in Shelbyville, Ind., with the aged whiskey shipped to Templeton for bottling.
Templeton has one block of a downtown, with the street ending at the rail line and grain elevators. On a foggy evening I could imagine what it all looked like during the early 1930s — except for the bar where I had my first sip of the local rye and listened to handed-down stories about the government "revenuers" busting up stills. The feds rolled the kegs out into the hog lot and axed them open, they say. But naturally, they kept one or two for evidence.
Alongside the Kentucky River in Frankfort, Ky., stand the old brick warehouses of Buffalo Trace Distillery — that's a modern name for the "oldest continually operating distillery in the United States." It was even open during Prohibition, bottling pints of "medicinal" rye. Now, Buffalo Trace makes bourbon for 17 different labels. You can look up at the dusty warehouse windows and see the barrels, aging, waiting for five, six, or seven years to pass. There are a quarter million barrels in storage.
Plus, there's a few hundred barrels of Sazerac Rye — the longtime New Orleans favorite. Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace often hears from bartenders, calling from New York City, Los Angeles — trying to find Sazerac. He says the rye's intense flavor makes it perfect for the classic cocktails. "When you mix it in a Manhattan, it doesn't get diluted by the Vermouth or the bitters."
Deeper in Kentucky's Bluegrass region, you could meet up with Chris Morris, the master distiller at Woodford Reserve and ask him about rye. Here's how he identifies the aromas that arise when the spicy rye grain is cooked and distilled: "green apple, green banana, black pepper, leather, oak, tobacco, caramel, vanilla ..."
I was lucky. I'd arrived at Woodford during the second of only three weeks the distillery gives over to rye production. The rest of the year, they're making the highly-respected bourbon, Distiller's Select. (The Chris Morris signature is on every label.)
A while back, Woodford decided to venture into the rye market. The first barrels, aged for seven years, will be ready in 2016 and will be called "Red Rye Select." Morris clearly enjoys the brief change. He smiles when you ask about his favorite: "I think bourbon is the best whiskey made and rye is simply different."
Both the bourbon and rye are made from the mineral-rich water from the limestone aquifer that underlies the central Kentucky countryside. It's the same water the Scots-Irish frontier settlers used centuries ago. There was a still on every homestead — and that's how all this got started.
A decade ago in this country you could only find six brands of rye whiskey. Now there are more than 50.