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Articles Food-&-Beverage Spirits

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Around the new millennium, if you went looking for a bottle of American straight rye whiskey, your chances were lousy. By the end of the 20th century, this foundational style of American whiskey was hanging from the ropes, seeing birdies, and waiting for the towel to hit the canvas. Out of the dozens of brands that were around as late as the 1950s, only two or three were still distributed nationwide, and even those took serious tracking down.

Then the bell rang. Rye caught its breath, squared its shoulders, and came out swinging. If it's not quite winning rounds yet (rye is still a small sector of American whiskey, albeit one that's growing like kudzu), it has certainly won over the judges and is starting to sway the crowd. Indeed, rye is one of the great success stories of the modern spirits industry. What looked like a fad ten years ago now looks like a full-fledged, broad-based revival, with at least 50 brands on the market.

In 2000, those few ryes available came in two kinds. One was made by large old-line whiskey distillers to be just like bourbon but with more spicy rye and less sweet corn in the grain mix. The other was Old Potrero, a young pot-stilled whiskey made from 100 percent malted rye by San Francisco's Anchor Distilling Company. Now there are dozens of microdistilled ryes following in Anchor's footsteps, the big companies' brands have proliferated, and there are a couple of other styles available as well. We can't cover them all, but here are five ryes that at least stake out the territory.

KENTUCKY RYES: Made by the old-line distillers, these run the gamut from fighting-weight stalwarts like Old Overholt (available everywhere rye is sold) to things like Heaven Hill's rich, balanced and just plain excellent revamp of its old Pikesville brand ($50), which it plucked from the bottom shelf, aged a full six years, and bottled at 110 proof. But they also encompass Woodford Reserve ($38), a blend of Kentucky-standard column-still whiskey and whiskey made in large Scottish pot stills, which give it a white-chocolate chewiness that nicely balances out its nippy, bitter finish. Almost like an Old-Fashioned in a glass.

LAWRENCEBURG RYES: Increased demand for rye brought a lot of hidden rye down from the attic. One of those attic rooms was the MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which had large stocks of rye intended for blending. You can buy it, bottle it, and sell it as your own, and many companies do. Among the few who readily admitted doing this was Bulleit ($28), whose bottling of this lean, dry whiskey (MGP uses no corn in its rye, unlike the Kentucky distillers) is exemplary. It's light and almost fruity in the nose -- is that mango we smell? -- and clean and elegant in its finish.

THE MICROS: Microdistillers have put out some shockingly bad ryes: underaged, fumy, tannic, pungent. Some, however, are finally getting it right, distilling cleanly and aging to maturity. New York Distilling Company's three-year-old Ragtime Rye ($45) might have a slight whiff of young-spirit latex in the nose, but that gets buried in roasted orange and dark chocolate, and the first sip tells you this is a rich, even unctuous, spicy, and complex whiskey that is ready for sipping. Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye ($45), from Colorado, is deliberately lighter and grassier in style but offers bright berry notes on the nose. Although still slightly grainy on the palate, it is also clean and juicy and smooth and just a little bit sweet. If this is the future, we can't wait for the next round.

- David Wondrich
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