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We will probably never get sick of bourbon. But over the last half-decade, American whiskey drinkers have become very thirsty for rye.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, production of the spirit (defined as a whiskey made with at least 51 percent rye wheat, along with the usual corn and barley) grew from 88,000 cases in 2009 to more than half a million cases last year. Once widely available bottlings like Sazerac have become hard to find, and two major players, Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse, have suffered severe shortages. Clearly the demand is there, and small craft producers have noticed. Enter Allen Katz and his Brooklyn-based New York Distilling, which just released its first bottles of three-year-old Rag Time Rye. We sat down with Katz at the distillery’s bar to talk about America's rye obsession and how his new offering will make an impact.
Why did you choose to make a rye whiskey?
Part of it is my upbringing in Maryland where rye is the whiskey of choice. Originally, the Mid-Atlantic was a hotbed for rye whiskey production, primarily because that was the grain that was grown there. I remember seeing my grandfather and other relatives drinking rye, seeing it at bars growing up in Baltimore. It really wasn’t anywhere else that I went to—not in New York City, not in Chicago, not in San Francisco, not in New Orleans, not in London. Also, our unwritten philosophy is to make spirits that are purposefully different. We love bourbon; we drink a lot of bourbon and we sell a lot of bourbon at the bar. It’s a magnificent spirit. But it would take a lot for us to wave our hands, make noise and get some attention in a crowded field of beyond-extraordinary bourbons. There’s still a great deal of the rye story to be told. The other thing, which may or may not be well known, is that rye is one of the heartiest grains to grow.
It grows well in bad weather?
It lasts and lasts. I don’t want to say it’s indestructible, but the anecdote I can give is over the last few yeas we’ve been planting and harvesting rye with an independent farmer in the Finger Lakes. The rye is harvested in June to early July and the last two Junes have been devastating for upstate New York agriculture. This past June was the highest recorded volume of rain on record. The year before they had major rainstorms in June. They lost cabbage, corn and other vegetable crops. But the rye came through. This year’s rye harvest was just shy of 500,000 pounds.
How does New York Distilling’s rye stand apart from some of the others on the market right now?
Many ryes are made with a rye percentage somewhere in the 50s. This new crop of small-scale, “boutique” rye whiskeys (like ours) are often made with a higher percentage rye in the mash bill. Ours is 72 percent rye, 16 percent corn and 12 percent malted barley. It’s unique. There’s not a rye whiskey that I’m familiar with that has the honey nose that ours has or that little effervescence of peach. We were waiting patiently to make a rye whiskey that tastes of more than just wood. Period. That comes from time—our whiskey is three to three and a half years old—and full-size barrels.
Why do you think there’s been such an increase in the demand for rye over the past decade?
A few reasons: One is because it’s new to people. Secondly, the popularity of American whiskey has surpassed the wildest dreams of producers large and small in this country. And lastly, it’s part of the 40- to 45-year gastronomic arc that started with Chez Panisse saying, “ How do we translate a methodology that Alice Waters experienced in France to what grows locally in Berkeley, California?" That begat an interest in wine culture, first European and then looking at what we could grow here, domestically. That led to an interest in craft beer. And finally, more recently, to an inward look for what might be authentic American gastronomy. And for me there are two things and only two things: barbecue of the American South and cocktails. There’s been a tremendous harkening back to what Americans were drinking from the 1850s to Prohibition. Well, damnit. Praise Jesus. They were drinking rye whiskey.
Are you working on any other rye releases for the future?
Some of the rye whiskey projects we have will take a full decade to come to fruition. We are working on making some single rye varietal whiskeys with some interesting varieties of rye—some heritage varieties. We started with ten seeds from a seed bank through Cornel. We’re just now getting enough harvested that we can do a distillation run with it.
Why work with single varietals?
If you’re a winemaker, you prune your vines to stress the grapes and concentrate the sugars in a select few. That’s what’s going to make your greatest wines. We’re looking for similar things in the rye. We’re looking for grains in which we can concentrate the sugars and for varietals that have that tendency naturally. We’re working with one variety in particular called Horton. We’ll distill that for the first time this fall. It might have a distinct characteristic, I don’t know. There are so many variables.
What is your favorite way to drink rye?
Right now I’ve been drinking it a lot with just two ice cubes, but my deathbed cocktail is a Manhattan. I use that terminology literally. My wife, who is eight years younger than I am, is well aware of that. Our house Manhattan is two ounces of the Rag Time, a half-ounce Martini & Rossi red vermouth, a half-ounce Punte e Mes and a dash of Angostura bitters. You get a little spice from the Punt e Mes and more round cherry notes from the Martini & Rossi. It’s fun.