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The Single Most Important Bottle In Your Home Bar
Rittenhouse Rye: Why it matters, and how to use it.
I hope your Thanksgiving Sours turned out well. And your Thanksgivings.
Speaking of which, I’m incredibly grateful for all the people who’ve signed up for this newsletter, and for all the people who have already started making the drinks I’ve written up in the first two editions. It’s been a weird year in too many ways to count. I haven’t been able to make drinks for friends in my own home in a long time. But I’m incredibly glad that I can share the drinks I would have liked to have made.
I’m also thinking about my own journey into home bartending. It’s somewhat strange to think that a decade ago I didn’t know a sour from an Old Fashioned. But roughly a decade ago is when I first experienced the magic of a truly great cocktail, at The Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. At the time, the bar was a tiny, semi-secret bar hidden in the back of a neo-dive called The Passenger. Craft cocktails and speakeasy-style bars were still novelty concepts, especially outside of New York City.
The headmaster of the Columbia Room, and the chief impresario of the D.C. cocktail scene, is Derek Brown. At the time, Brown said something (as I recall) to the effect of, “most bars preach ingredients, we preach technique.” It’s stuck with me ever since.
There are a lot of things I hope to do with this newsletter. I hope to teach people how to make exceptional versions of specific drinks, and how to think about those drinks as families. I hope to show people the structural relationships between drinks that otherwise might seem worlds apart. I want to impart some accumulated wisdom about which cocktail tools are worth owning, and how to use them.
This newsletter will spend a lot of time covering technique. Technique — the how of making cocktails — is a big part of the secret to making great drinks. In my experience, you should always follow Derek Brown’s advice.
But ingredients are important too, if only because, well, you just can’t make cocktails without them. And one of the things I hope this newsletter will do is help people build better home bars from the ground up, which means focusing on which bottles matter and why.
The obvious place to start is with the most frequently used, most high-value bottle for a home bartender who loves craft cocktails. You want something that’s tasty, affordable, and versatile – not a prize bottle that you’ll show off, but one that you’ll come back to over and over again. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s an obvious choice: Rittenhouse Rye.
Rye Is the Backbone of the Classic Cocktail Experience
Before we get to why I chose Rittenhouse Rye over other brands, let’s look at why I chose this particular spirit.
The main reason is pretty straightforward: You’ll find it in a lot of drinks. In fact, rye is arguably the backbone of the classic cocktail experience.
Prior to Prohibition, it was rye, not bourbon, that was America’s brown spirit of choice. Frequently produced in mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania and Maryland, rye was the go-to whiskey for many of the era’s cocktails. But many of those distilleries closed during Prohibition and never reopened, or stopped producing rye if they did. Rye production dropped dramatically, and in the decades after Prohibition, rye could be quite difficult to find. No one wanted it. No one made it.
Today, of course, there are dozens of rye producers scattered across the country, and some producers have even returned to Maryland and Pennsylvania. Some of this is a result of surging interest in whiskey of all kinds; in mid-century America, vodka reigned supreme. But for the last two decades or so, whiskey — and particularly bourbon — has been on the rise.
I can practically hear you ask: So why isn’t bourbon the foundation of my bar? And yes, bourbon is the current king of American whiskey. Lots of people drink it, and its corn-and-grain sweetness makes it reasonably friendly to a wide array of palates.
But that corn-forward sweetness means that bourbon is actually somewhat difficult to mix. Its strong aromas and almost syrupy taste can overpower other ingredients, which means it doesn’t always play well with others. Think of bourbon like a big, burly dog you love who can’t help but get in scraps with other dogs at the park; it might be your best friend, but you might run into trouble when there’s company.
Rye is almost the opposite. It has a strong flavor and a big personality--I love sipping rye neat, but on its own, it’s probably somewhat less accessible than bourbon, at least for whiskey novices. In cocktails, however, it’s also a welcoming spirit, with a peppery, sometimes floral, not-too-sweet flavor profile that brings out complex flavors when combined with other ingredients. It’s a great partner in crime — ever-so-slightly cantankerous, but with a lot of valuable skills and plenty of charisma. Which means that as a cocktail ingredient, it’s hard to beat.
So despite bourbon’s popularity, it’s the spicier, more intense rye whiskey that provides the foundation for some of the most popular concoctions in the classic cocktail canon — drinks like the Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Vieux Carre, among others.
In fact, to a large degree, rye’s rebirth over the last twenty years is a function of the rediscovery and revival of classic cocktails — the kind of carefully made pre-Prohibition-style drinks I’m going to focus on in this newsletter.
A certain type of cocktail geek might make a case for dry gin instead of rye. And I will grant there is a plausible case to be made. Like rye, gin is the base ingredient for any number of beloved cocktails, from the Gimlet to the Corpse Reviver No. 2. In particular, it’s the defining ingredient of the Martini and many of its spinoffs and variants. If you’re a Martini obsessive, or a gin fanatic who already knows the recipe to a Tuxedo No. 2 and has strong feelings about how to make an Alaska, then, well, you’re probably going to build your bar around a bottle of Beefeater.
But even today, with gin cocktails common and gin Martinis making a comeback, it’s hard to find people who became cocktail-curious by drinking gin. In my experience, there are a lot of people who are quite fond of cocktails who remain wary of gin, and in general, it’s more difficult to generate interest in gin than it is in whiskey (though it can be done).
If you love margaritas, you might want a bottle of tequila or even mezcal, but you’ll miss out on a lot of older classics. Finally, if you’re a tiki nut or a daiquiri diehard you might argue for a bottle of rum. I love tiki drinks, and I plan to write about them in future editions of this newsletter. But rum is perhaps the most complex, idiosyncratic base spirit to master; there are simply too many types. Moreover, many tiki drinks are built on multi-rum blends. No single rum will do.
So I’m standing by my choice: If you want to build a home cocktail bar, you should start with rye whiskey. It’s the cornerstone of your bar.
Rye Ask Rye, Try Rittenhouse Rye
Once you pick rye, you have to pick a specific rye. These days, there are plenty to choose from at practically any price point. To experience the full range of what rye can taste like, I strongly recommend seeking out sips of Lock, Stock & Barrel 16 Year or High West’s A Midwinter Night’s Dram. Both are exceptional ryes. They are also priced accordingly. These are high-end experiences, meant to be sipped straight, not mixed. I wouldn’t really recommend using them in cocktails.
Instead, you’re going to want something a little more conventional and a little more affordable — but still complex and tasty.
Making cocktails at home means seeking out bottles that are good values and can be used in a lot of drinks. And there just aren’t many ryes that can meaningfully compete with Rittenhouse. In an era of demand-driven whiskey shortages, it’s widely available. At $28 or so a bottle, it’s reasonably affordable. And it is often not only a good choice for standard versions of classic cocktails, but the very best choice, particularly for drinks in the Manhattan family.
Rittenhouse works so well not because it’s a delicate, ultra-complex sipper, but because it is a supremely well-balanced spirit, with notes of pepper, caramel, maple, and toasted nuts. The flavors are strong and distinct, but no note overpowers any other, and, importantly, the nose isn’t overpowering. It’s Bottled-in-Bond, which means it comes in at 100 proof and thus stands up to mixing. But it doesn’t taste overly of alcohol. It simply tastes exactly like rye should taste, without any adornment or fuss; it’s a sturdy ingredient, relatively inexpensive and extremely reliable, an ideal platform for building cocktails.
Yes, there are some other ryes in the same price range, and some of them are quite good. I rather like Old Overholt, which is even cheaper than Rittenhouse. But it’s lower proof and slightly harsher than Rittenhouse, while the beefier 100-proof version is too ripe and tastes too strongly of alcohol. Bulleit Rye is smoother, and has distinctive notes of banana and toffee, but if anything, it’s a little too smooth; it doesn’t have quite enough character. The same goes for George Dickel rye, which is charcoal filtered for an even milder profile. I find the fruit notes in Knob Creek rye overpowering.
You might pull any one of these ryes for a particular drink — but they’re less effective all around. Part of what makes Rittenhouse such an essential ingredient is that it seems to do everything well, which is one of the qualities of a great bar-starter.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of a whiskey drink where Rittenhouse doesn’t work at all, and there are quite a few where it sets the standard. It’s incredibly versatile.
Let’s Make Some Rye Drinks!
To see how effectively Rittenhouse works in a number of drinks, let’s look at a handful of recipes.
The Manhattan is cocktail royalty, one of the most enduring and important of the classics. It’s a drink that showcases Rittenhouse rye’s strengths as a base ingredient — it doesn’t stand out, but it doesn’t wilt either, even with a quite rich sweet vermouth like Carpano Antica Formula.
After you make the drink, hold it up to your nose: Notice how the Rittenhouse is present but not dominant, and how it has integrated with the vermouth.
Now taste it. You’ll notice multiple layers of flavor, but nothing overpowering; it’s like listening to a well-balanced orchestral chord. In too many Manhattans, the spice of the rye is at war with the sweetness of the vermouth; they’re competing for your attention rather than working together. With Rittenhouse, the spice and the sweet are complimentary. The flavors combine like a happy couple out for a walk, holding hands.
I’ll work through Manhattan recipes and variations in a future newsletter, but for now, here’s a very standard recipe:
2 dashes Angostura
1 ounce Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
A Black Manhattan is just a Manhattan with an amaro (a bitter liqueur, almost always Averna), in place of the vermouth. It’s a richer, more herbal concoction, for fans of black coffee and Negronis. Once again, the Rittenhouse’s spice profile acts as a complement to the bitter/herbal notes in the Amaro, integrating the flavors rather than clashing with them.
A Sazerac is a New Orleans classic, a variation on an Old Fashioned served without ice. The drink calls on sugar or syrup of some kind, plus Peychaud’s bitters — and, crucially, a glass rinsed with absinthe.
Because most of the drink’s volume is rye, the Sazerac puts a spotlight on the choice of booze. Rittenhouse fills the role nicely, managing to be peppery enough to be interesting, but caramel-smooth enough not to be off-putting. The spices, meanwhile, play gently but not aggressively with the anise scent from the absinthe and the oils expressed from a lemon peel. This is a drink that is, as much as anything, about the scent. The Rittenhouse does its part by mostly staying out of the way.
Do pay close attention to the instructions; this one is somewhat elaborate.
1 barspoon absinthe (or 1 spray from a mister/atomizer)
1 dash angostura
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 tsp rich demerara syrup
2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
1 lemon peel for garnish
Use the absinthe to coat the inside of a rocks glass, either by rolling the liquid on the drink walls, or by using an atomizer to mist the inside of the glass.
Combine all ingredients except the absinthe in a separate mixing glass. Add ice and stir until thoroughly chilled — 30-40 stirs. Strain out the ice, pouring the chilled drink into the misted rocks glass. Twist a lemon peel over the top of the drink, expressing the oils onto the surface of the drink; discard the peel.
Another stirred, rich, New Orleans drink, this is a complex variant on the Manhattan that once again shows off how well Rittenhouse gets along with a wide array of other spirits — in this case, cognac, sweet vermouth, and Benedictine.
There are a lot of subtle variations possible in a drink like this; the choice of vermouth, in particular, can radically alter its flavor profile. I prefer the winter-spice notes of Cocchi di Torino for the vermouth and the fruit basket exuberance of Pierre Ferrand 1840 for the cognac, but you can experiment with various combinations. Somehow, though, Rittenhouse is always the best choice for the rye.
2 dashes Angostura
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
¼ ounce Benedictine
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce cognac
1 ounce Rittenhouse rye
Did I mention Rittenhouse was versatile? So far, we’ve looked at stirred drinks. But it does equally well in shaken sours — in particular, the whiskey sour.
Whiskey sours are often made with a bourbon base, but bartender Dan Sabo’s winning recipe in Punch’s 2017 comparison of more than a dozen whiskey sours relied on, you guessed it, Rittenhouse rye (and, somewhat unusually, orange juice as a sweetener).
As with the Manhattan, the Rittenhouse serves as a platform for the rest of the drink, adding complexity and keeping it from being overly sweet. The latter is crucial in a somewhat sugary drink like the whiskey sour.
1 egg white
½ ounce rich simple syrup
½ ounce fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 ounce lemon juice
2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Dry shake without ice for 10-15 seconds to integrate. Then add ice, and shake for another 15 seconds or until the outside wall of the tin is chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice. Garnish with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry and an orange half-wheel.
Earlier, I mentioned the Last Word, a Prohibition-era cocktail involving equal parts gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice. One of the best variations on this drink was created over a decade ago by bartender Phil Ward; it simply replaces the lime with lemon juice and the gin with Rittenhouse Rye.
Notice that, like the whiskey sour above, it relies on a four-part structure: 1 part sweet (the maraschino liqueur), 1 part sour (the lemon), and two parts strong/spirit — which in this case, is split between rye and green Chartreuse. This drink has been described as “a whiskey sour for people who crave complexity.”
¾ ounce lemon juice
¾ ounce maraschino liqueur
¾ ounce Rittenhouse Rye
¾ ounce green Chartreuse
Finally, you can always use Rittenhouse to make an Old Fashioned.
I like mine with rich demerara syrup, two dashes of Angostura, and one dash of Regans’ orange bitters. But remember: The Old Fashioned is a template, a system, an idea. Once you understand the idea, you can figure out how to make one for yourself.
Cocktail Library: Death & Co.:Modern Classic Cocktails, by David Kaplan and Nick Fauchald. Probably the single biggest influence on my drinks; the book includes a recipe for the Conference, a four-part Old Fashioned variant that includes Rittenhouse Rye.
What are you making? What are you drinking? What Rittenhouse rye cocktail should I have included? Do you have drinking plans for Repeal Day?