“A rye Manhattan please, stirred. Dolin sweet vermouth, if you have it. And bartender’s choice of bitters.” Behold, my drink. That I have to ask for it stirred is painful. (Fact: Every time you shake a Manhattan, a puppy dies.) That I have sweet vermouths (plural!) from which to choose is encouraging. And the bitters invitation allows for creativity. But that I specifically call for rye—these days it’s Bulleit—is just a matter of my preference for rye whiskey over the more prevalent bourbon.
American rye whiskey must be made from at least 51 percent rye grain, the balance being barley, corn and other grains. In a Manhattan, bold rye is complemented by sweet vermouth and bitters, what spirits writer Gaz Regan calls a “ménage à Manhattan” in his poem of the same name, the most erotic as was ever written about a cocktail. When Bulleit rye debuted in 2011, BourbonBlog.com (a tremendous resource) noted cherry, tobacco and spice on the nose and a good balance between sweet and spicy characteristics on the palate—perfect Manhattan material!
Just a few years ago, rye Manhattans were rare as there were so few ryes available. This was not always the case. Before Prohibition, rye was America’s most popular whiskey. A few survived the Noble Experiment, including Old Overholt, the house rye in Manhattans at Herbs & Rye. In 2010, mixologist Andrew Pollard fought hard to bring Michter’s rye into Las Vegas. That whiskey is said to have fortified George Washington’s army during the winter at Valley Forge; I imagine it would do the same for a Vegas winter.
More recently, Old Potrero and Rittenhouse were the tinder and the spark, respectively, of the 2006 rye renaissance that has led to a flood of ryes on the market. Look for Wild Turkey’s Russell’s Reserve 6-year, and from Utah’s first legal distillery since Prohibition, try High West’s Rendezvous and especially the 21-year. I recently encountered (and enjoyed) Knob Creek rye in Kentucky. And Templeton rye—said to be Al Capone’s favorite—became widely available in Las Vegas in 2012, with Templeton barrels being coveted for barrel-aging cocktails. But there are other ryes besides whiskey.
Rye also makes beautiful vodka—silky, spicy and medium-bodied with a subtly grainy aroma. It positively kills in boozy cocktails such as a dirty martini, Bloody Mary or—oh!—the Gibson. For this, look to Poland for Belvedere and Chopin. And rye gin? St. George Dry Rye.
Rye beers can vary greatly from light and dry to caramel-sweet, spicy, fruity or a little sour, but most still retain a touch of rye character. At Khoury’s Fine Wine & Spirits look for Epic Rompin’ Rye, Firestone Wookey Jack, Bruery Saison Rue, Bear Republic’s Hop Rod Rye, and soon, Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye. At Smashburger, grab a can of Joseph James’ Citra Rye Pale Ale.
If you’re not opposed to a little homework, you could re-create mixologist José Zepeda’s house-made Rock and Rye (pictured, $18), which he serves at Hyde Bellagio. Over a month, rock candy, cloves, cinnamon sticks, lemons, limes and oranges infuse Old Overholt rye. After a month, the rye is double-strained, bottled and served on the rocks, though you might prefer yours neat, in a hot toddy or even in a wintry Manhattan.
As in the past, you can buy this “alcoholic medicinal preparation” pre-bottled (look for Hochstadter’s Slow & Low), but the joy of a homemade elixir was the personal touch of whomever made it for whoever had a cough … even if it was just for themselves.
José Zepeda’s Rock and Rye
As served at Hyde Bellagio, $18
In a large glass beverage container, combine 1 bottle of Old Overholt rye whiskey, 1/2 bag of rock candy, 4 1/2 cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 1/2 orange cut in half, 1/2 lemon cut in half and 1/2 lime cut in half and seal. Every 4-5 days, strain out the fruit and spices (leave the rock candy while it desolves). Continue for up to a month (at least two weeks), then double-strain out all solids and bottle the rock and rye. To server, pour 2 1/2 ounces over quality ice and garnish with a cinnamon stick.