Don Draper may have been the center of seven seasons of excellent television, but the real hero was the comeback-kid of whiskey he drank day after day in his office: rye.
Rye's last seven years have been a renaissance unlike many others, going from a nothing category the year before Mad Men first aired to one of the largest and fastest-growth categories in liquor. And sure, there are plenty of factors that may have influenced the return from obscurity, but in this case we should give credit to pop culture.
Never mind the stress-drenched pours and sweaty dramatic climaxes in cars, corner offices, and apartments. Those are small potato moments. The first thing Peggy learns about Don when she starts work as his secretary is what he drinks. Joan advises her on how to handle the job, "Keep a bottle of something in your desk; Mr. Draper drinks rye."
It's an omnipresent Canadian bottle, always on Don's bar. It's what he reaches for.
Searching for a drink seasons later, Don runs across Conrad Hilton in a Country Club sans bartender. Connie remarks that the bar "looks like it was set up by a blind man — and there's no bourbon." So Don, being Don, jumps the bar, and starts mixing a couple Old Fashioneds — this time with rye. It gets an approving "helluva cocktail" from Connie — maybe the only approval Draper gets from him in the whole series.
Last year, the Distilled Spirits Council announced that rye sales had grown more than 500 percent in the past five years. They told us this week that rye "continues to be one of the hottest categories among whiskey. Volume was up over 40 percent to 520,000 cases in 2014."
Part of that is cocktails, like the now ubiquitous Old Fashioned. "The interest in American whiskey cocktails is certainly helping to contribute to this growth," Alexandra Sklansky of the Distilled Spirits Council says, "as rye's spicier character makes for a standout base spirit for many classic whiskey cocktails."
That appreciation — for well mixed drinks and classic cocktails — may have come from the most fashionable show of the last decade, or it may have been a coincidence. In truth, Don was more or less alone is his appreciation for bourbon's spicy cousin at the time, as rye had begun a post-war fade after years of post-prohibition boom.
But regardless of its origins, whiskey-makers are betting big that it's here to stay. In addition to brands like Bulleit, Whistlepig, and a slew of others, there are a handful of new bottles hitting shelves right now — from big names in the booze business. They're coming from Don's Great White North provider and Kentucky alike — and with exciting mash/grain bills, from as high as 100 percent rye to as low as 53.
Whether you're aware or not, you've likely been drinking rye anyway, as it's a regular part of most bourbon blends. So the question isn't necessarily whether you like drinking it, but how much you like in your blend.
Here are some highlights to get your adventure started if you're already decades behind:
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
New to market this month is the biggest, boldest whiskey from our neighbors to the north: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. For 90 percent rye, this one is terrifically floral. It's also very spicy, with some cocoa and cinnamon notes on the nose. Those characters continue onto the palate, but the immense kick of rye spice is dominant. The 10 percent that remains does an astonishing job of filling in gaps, but the purpose of this blend is to support the talent, not build a team. [$29; crownroyal.com]
Out this month at 53 percent rye, Woodford rye is basically an upside down mash bill of the standard Woodford bourbon. The result is something sippable straight: where many bourbons take well to ice or make better impressions as part of a cocktail, this one's ready for a glass immediately. You still get that earthy, floral spice, but it comes into the room after a polite knock, not after kicking in the door. It's also going to be the hardest to find: a small supply means allocations nationwide will be, well, tiny. [$38; woodfordreserve.com]
Tap Rye 8-Year-Old Sherry Finish
Tap's "finish" is actually the addition of liquid spirit, not resting in barrels. Amontillado sherry is actually added to the final blend after aging. At eight years, much of the spice has mellowed in this whiskey — to the point that you’ll question whether it’s even pure rye. Instead of spice, you get lots of sweet character, vanilla from the cask, tons of brown sugar, and some candy and toffee notes from the sherry. This definitely falls into the category of experimental, but it’s not the only whiskey done this way in Canada, and it has some excellent cocktail potential if you like messing with recipes on classics. [$39; tapwhiskey.com]