Here's Rye in Your Eye

Folks, now here’s the story ’bout Minnie the Moocher.

There's something about the time, the weather, or the giant pink exploding elephant that is our financial system that has me craving whiskey. I have two ways to drink whiskey: bourbon to celebrate and rye to forget. I'm not the only one. Rye whiskey is cast as a supporting actor in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, a movie about a man who goes on a bender to chase away a bout of writer's block. Rye reminds me of the scene in Breakfast at Tiffany's when George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn burn off the "mean reds" in a dark bar during the middle of the day. And every time I drink the spirit, I can't help but hear the opening notes of "Minnie the Moocher" in my head and start seeing in black and white. The bottles of the most common ryes look like throwbacks to the 1930s themselves. Yet rye whiskey deserves a clean break from its dark, fedora-wearing past—and a spot on the cocktail menu for its particular flavor. Scotch, bourbon, and rye are all whiskeys: grain-distilled spirits that age for a time in oak barrels. These three major categories of whiskey are distinguished from one another by origin and ingredients. In America, rye was one of the most commonly used whiskey-making grains through the signing of the Constitution (and even longer in Eastern states). As spirits production spread west, distillers used a larger variety of grains to make their products—in Tennessee and Kentucky, the preference for corn begat bourbon—choosing other grains over rye sometimes for flavor and sometimes out of necessity. Rye whiskey must be distilled from a mash containing at least 51 percent rye. This is not to be confused with Canadian whisky (no e), which is often referred to as "rye whisky" by our friends up north, but which has not necessarily been made from the same amount of rye we require in the States. Rye should have a characteristic spicy, peppery note or zing; this spice is completely different from the sweeter aromas found in bourbon. Rye whiskey also gets the same slight bitterness from the grain that you find in the aftertaste of a slice of dark rye bread. Thanks to our current obsession with pre-Prohibition cocktails, rye garners more shelf space these days, though still not nearly as much as bourbon or Scotch. I can't believe it hasn't caught on with the tavern-worshipping set, but I think it's never gotten the mainstream attention it deserves because of its image problem—or lack of any image at all. Which is a crying shame, because I think the flavors of rye benefit any cocktail. In fact, many bartenders will argue rye makes the best Manhattan. Another classic it improves is the Old Fashioned. Muddle a thick slice of orange with a healthy dash of sugar, add ice, then pour two ounces of rye whiskey into the glass, preferably something economical like Old Overholt. I've always thought bourbon tastes sweet enough without this treatment, and dryer, slightly more bitter rye whiskey comes off just right when complemented with a tiny amount of sweet juice and orange oils. Taking advantage of rye's affinity for orange, I also make a version of a Beautiful (equal parts cognac and Grand Marnier, served neat) that substitutes Wild Turkey rye for the brandy. To indulge in your own rye whiskey moment, I can't think of a more apropos venue than Hooverville (1721 First Ave. S., just south of Safeco Field). The bar pays homage to the shantytowns that once littered American cities after the Great Depression. Matter of fact, Harbor Island claims fame as the site of the very first Hooverville. (Seattle had the original Skid Row, too.) As you sip your shot of rye with a ginger ale back, thinking about that last great bank collapse, celebrate the fact that no matter what life throws at us these days, you're a long way away from a tin shack with a water view.

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