Source: New York Times - By BONNIE TSUI (excerpts)
In gold-rush-era San Francisco, bars lined every block of the Barbary Coast, the area where pioneer mixologists - back when they were called bartenders - honed their craft. Rye whiskey was their staple. A hundred years later, a visitor would have been lucky to find one or two rye labels on the shelves of bars in major American cities; bourbon had taken over as the American whiskey.
Over the last few years, though, that has changed, as rye has emerged as a go-to craft spirit of the moment. Interest in its production has also come back, as small artisanal distillers, like Templeton and Delaware Phoenix, have popped up across the country, referencing old recipes and archaeological records to create new spirits strongly rooted in tradition. And big whiskey companies that mostly make bourbon - Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill - are not only bottling small batches of specialty rye but offering tours to spirit enthusiasts.
So: why rye? Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51 percent rye (a legal requirement), and has a peppery, complex flavor imparted from the grain; bourbon is at least 51 percent corn, and has a corresponding caramel sweetness.
"Rye is such a flavorful thing to make whiskey out of - it just bursts with fruit and spice," Mr. Joseph
Despite the revival, rye still sits in the towering shadow of its more popular cousins; bourbon and Tennessee whiskey account for three-quarters of American whiskey production. Rye doesn't even register as a category measured by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, Ky., is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country. A series of beautiful historical brick buildings situated along the banks of the Kentucky River, it was one of four distilleries allowed to operate during Prohibition, making whiskey "for medicinal purposes only" (more than 6 million prescriptions were written for whiskey during that era).
Most of what Buffalo Trace makes is bourbon, but in the mid-1800s, the distillery supplied the rye whiskey for Sazerac, the New Orleans bar that invented its namesake cocktail: rye, absinthe, sugar, plus a dash of bitters and a twist of lemon peel. Buffalo Trace is a big operation with two imposing column stills, but it also has a dedicated micro-still reserved for experimental, limited-release batches that play with unique grain combinations, as well as the types of barrels for aging.
The tasting room is licensed to offer bourbon only. My friend and I got our rye fix at Serafini, a nearby bar, where we asked for old-fashioneds made with the distillery's Sazerac straight rye and Buffalo Trace bourbon, for comparison. The rye cocktail was subtler, less sweet. It felt, to me, like a more grown-up version.