Learning to Love Rye

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You go through phases in your life as a casual drinker. First, when you're younger and probably underage, you drink anything you can get your hands on. You mix things that should really never be combined, sneak just enough vodka from the liquor cabinet in your house that nobody will notice, and you'll happily chug cheap beer like it's a fine Bordeaux red blend. Eventually you grow up and get your drink, maybe it's a Jack and Coke or gin and tonic even on the coldest day of the year, and that's where some people stay for the rest of their lives, happy and content with not having to overthink things. Those people have it nice, because trying something new basically ends up ordering a beer with a familiar name or "a glass of white wine." Drinking is just something they do after work, before dinner, when they're with their friends. There isn't much thought behind it. They maybe don't care about the news of a possible single-malt Scotch drought or that the American bourbon shortage is "VERY real;" but I do. 

At some point in all of our lives, we're presented with two roads. You can go down that first one where the bartender will forever know your drink of choice (and that's totally fine), or you walk the other and get obsessive with what you drink. You stop drinking your favorite IPA because you don't like the huge corporation that bought it or you drive several hours because you heard of a liquor store that has one last batch of a certain spirit you love. There are varying degrees of this obsession, of course; you might start brewing your own beer or spending large chunks of money on single bottles of Yamazaki 18 that you might not ever end up opening. 

But what you really like, what you're most likely to look for when you go to a bar, is another thing. You might be particular, but hopefully you aren't that particular where you will only drink a certain brand and nothing else. For me, it's bourbon. I have grown to love bourbon over the years. I love lots of whiskey (both whiskey and whisky), but if I walk into a bar and see Buffalo Trace is available, chances are I'll order one of those with a side of water or a couple of ice cubes if it's especially hot outside. That's the way I've been doing things, but there's the worry in the back of my head that I'm not always going to be able to find what I want. 

At some point in the last decade, bourbon got really popular. So much so that there's all kinds of worry, that whiskey makers weren't prepared for boom, and that barrel makers can't keep up with the demand. It's not exactly a bourbon dystopia; you can still get the stuff, we're not living in a bourbon version of Waterworld — thank God. But what I have noticed, and this is from somebody who spends a fair amount of time in bars and reading about whiskey for fun as well as work, is that rye is becoming more popular among my friends, but distillers as well. Canada, where rye is almost native the way certain whiskey might be to Tennessee or Kentucky in the United States, has benefitted from this rye renaissance. People finally realize some of the best whiskey in the world comes from there, and no less an authority than Jim Murray proclaimed last year that Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, at fifty bucks a bottle, is the best whiskey in the world. 

All that, however, mattered very little to me. For years now I've been drinking everything but rye. It's great in certain cocktails, sure, but so is Mellow Corn. I've just never gone out of my way to really get to know it, and that, to me, is what loving any wine or beer or spirit is about. You have to be intimate with it to enjoy it, and I'd just never gotten around to really taking the time to see what makes it so great. It took me a very long time to truly appreciate Scotch that ends on the really smoky side of the spectrum, I figured that once I did that, I had a pretty decent palate for appreciating whiskey from all over. 

Just like really knowing your favorite things to drink, you have to evolve as a drinker as well. Faced with a number of ryes that friends have sworn up and down would change my mind, I started with Bulleit, since I'd ordered a fair number of Manhattans with it as the spirit of choice. On the nose I noticed it wasn't too far from its cousin from Kentucky, but when I took my first sip, that mix of sweet and spicy knocked me back. All maple and tart fruit with a couple of dashes of pepper. OK, I thought, I might be into rye. 

It's been a slow process, getting more into rye. Whether it's one born out of necessity, the worry that the world's whiskey supplies truly are running really low, or I want to be able to say I'm a pretty well-versed whiskey lover is still hard for me to figure out. I've been working on a bottle of Canadian Club 100% Rye, which, as you'd imagine, is 100% single rye grain. It's got just a hint of sweetness mixed with clove and cinnamon, but ultimately I'm left wishing I'd had some pastrami from Katz's as the taste of the one grain that goes into making it sticks around in my mouth after each sip. 

So what's next? Do I keep on trying new ryes or mix things up, maybe ordering a rye one time and something from Ireland the next? That's really the fun part about drinking as a hobby, you can try new things and see what works for you and what doesn't. You can have your one thing you're fond of, but life is a bar, and you should really sample from each bottle at least once.