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Drinks get you in spirit for Derby

The world will be awash in bourbon Saturday, as thousands sip frosty mint juleps to celebrate the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. But while corn-centric bourbon may be the libation of the day, there is growing buzz over a whiskey based on another grain – rye.

Rooted well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, rye whiskey is spicy and edgy compared with its mellow Southern cousin. If bourbon is soft and genteel, rye – the original mixer for the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and other classic cocktails – is assertive and brash. And it’s turning heads.

But Kentuckians need not choke on their straws. While rye whiskey was made first in Pennsylvania and Maryland and was popular in the bars and taverns of the Northeast, most rye is distilled in Kentucky.

“I’d say the volume of interest in rye whiskey has gone up exponentially in the last two years,” says Larry Kass, communications director of Heaven Hill Distillery near Bardstown, Ky., which has made rye whiskey since the end of Prohibition.

Heaven Hill, which also makes Evan Williams and Elijah Craig bourbons, introduced a 21-year-old Rittenhouse Rye for $140 a bottle in fall 2006, even before the New York Times validated the rye resurgence. Its Rittenhouse Very Rare 23-Year-Old Single Barrel Rye, introduced in late 2007, was named Best Rye Whiskey in April at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

The Buffalo Trace Distillery near Frankfort , Ky., brought home a Northern American Whiskey of the Year award in 2007 from San Francisco for its Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey. This year, the same whiskey took gold, while Buffalo Trace’s Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey earned a double gold.

“Our feeling, even 10 years ago, was that there was opportunity in rye,” says Mark Brown, president and CEO of Buffalo Trace.

That was when a manager told him about a cache of fine rye whiskey aging in his sprawling brick warehouses. The next year – 1998 – Brown directed his distiller to start making more rye.

Why rye? To explain its growing popularity, Brown and others compare the trend to the explosion of single-malt Scotch whiskeys in the 1990s. As American consumers became more sophisticated, they wanted to sample different, often rare and pricey whiskeys – small batch and single-barrel bourbons, and now, rye.

“(Until then) there was a perception that all American whiskey was the same,” says Brown.

For some, rye is the “new frontier for American whiskey,” says Kass. Others perceive it as “retro” and “classic.”

Considering rye’s history, it may be more surprising that the whiskey actually had to make a comeback. Rye was an American favorite long before bourbon was born. In fact, rye whiskey distillers, who left Pennsylvania after the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, are credited with creating bourbon before the turn of the 19th century. Upon arriving in Kentucky, these early craftsmen substituted corn for rye in their recipes simply because the yellow grain was more plentiful.

While bourbon soon became king in the South and much of the West, rye whiskey ruled the Northeast and upper Midwest until Prohibition. After 1933, Canadian rye whiskeys flooded the U.S. market. Perhaps because corn was still cheaper after World War II, American rye whiskey largely disappeared from bar shelves and liquor cabinets.

Even then, it was easy for Kentucky distilleries to make small amounts of rye whiskey because they had the grain on hand. By law, bourbon must be made using at least 51 percent corn, but rye is usually an ingredient along with malted barley. Conversely, rye whiskey must be at least 51 percent rye, but contains some corn.

Distilling rye whiskey is much the same as bourbon, and like the corn-based whiskey, rye is aged in new, charred, oak barrels. This is why, at first look, sniff and taste, some might think bourbon and rye are identical. Their color is a golden amber, growing darker with age. The aroma and taste are similar, with nuances of vanilla and caramel notes from oak wood aging.

So why not rye whiskey in a mint julep? The spicy, some might say slightly bitter, flavors of the rye whiskey stand out in the sweet julep. When made with traditional bourbon, the drink is rounder and more mellow. As they say in Kentucky, the rye mint julep isn’t better, “just different.”



The 134th running of the Kentucky Derby is at 3:04 p.m. Saturday Tucson time. To get into the Louisville, Ky., mood, try these recipes, courtesy of The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Taste Plus

Mint Julep

Try rye for a spicier twist to the traditional Derby drink.

crushed or shaved ice

fresh mint sprig

2 tablespoons mint syrup (or to taste; see note)

3 ounces rye whiskey or bourbon

Fill julep cup or glass 1/2 full with ice. Insert straw to bottom of glass and insert mint sprig near straw. Stir syrup and whiskey in another glass and pour over ice. Add more ice to top of glass and serve.

Note: To make mint syrup, boil 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of water about 5 minutes, or until dissolved. Remove from heat and add large bunch of washed, fresh mint. Cover and allow to sit at least 1 hour or until cooled to room temperature. Strain out mint, cover and refrigerate until needed.


2 1/2 ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce Italian sweet vermouth

several dashes of bitters

lemon twist or cherry, for garnish

Stir well with ice cubes and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist or cherry.

Note: A “dry Manhattan” uses only French vermouth and lemon twist; a “perfect” employs the same amount of vermouth, but 1/2 French dry and 1/2 Italian sweet.

Source: “Michael Jackson’s Bar & Cocktail Companion” (Running Press, $19.95)

Old Fashioned

2 teaspoons sugar syrup

3 dashes bitters

1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey

twist of lemon, for garnish

slice of orange, for garnish

Pour syrup and bitters into old fashioned glass and stir. Add ice, top with whiskey, stir and garnish.

Source: “Michael Jackson’s Bar & Cocktail Companion” (Running Press, $19.95)



• More traditional recipes for the Kentucky Derby Derby Day Recipe

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