Serious Eats: Drinks
Will Gordon's Whiskey Battle: Bulleit Rye vs. Rittenhouse Rye
Serious Eats pays me a million dollars a week, which would be enough to float most boats, but my insatiable thirst for life's luxuries—caviar, student loans, electricity—requires a million and a hundred, so I work one night a week as a bar bouncer.
The hours are abominable, but it's an otherwise easy gig. I'm very good at counting to 21, our bar has a fairly low bounce rate, and it doesn't take much energy to repeat, "Nope, cash only, ATM in the back. It's probably out of order, in which case you'll figure something out, though I know you'll have to ask me ten questions on the way to this reckoning, because heaven forbid a functional adult know how to find an ATM on Mass. Ave.; yeah, we have darts." That's the nuts, bolts, and sighs of it until closing time, when I get to commence the mopping of the floor and the drinking of my weight in Mayflower Porter, which means I have plenty of time to catch up on all the magazines I failed to read throughout the week.
I had some time off around the holidays, though, which allowed for a couple of raucous and impromptu housebound magazine parties that left me without reading material last Saturday night. I was afraid this would reduce me to an evening of fiddling with my phone and making eye contact with patrons, but Kenji bailed me out by launching a sneak attack with a couple of old friends. I hadn't seen Kenji since my wedding and I hadn't seen Clay and Katie since before their wedding, so we all stood around talking about being married, because married people are deeply uninteresting and Kenji doesn't like sports.
I was having a grand time catching up with my pals and drinking over-hopped beer amongst the over-served crowd, and everything was going swimmingly until Kenji asked who, between Bottom Shelf research director Emily and I, "got lucky." At first I thought he was making an untoward reference to the matrimonial bedroom—but it turns out he was asking something even less appropriate. That monster had the temerity to inquire as to which spouse in our perfectly equitable marriage had gotten the better deal, implying that just because one of us is younger, fitter, better-looking, higher-paid, and more pleasant, the other one is some sort of freeloading part-time bouncer.
To the untrained eye, Emily may seem to bring more to the table, but not to any eye savvy enough to recognize that domestic harmony is built primarily upon trust and meatballs. I make the meatballs around here, and Emily trusts that they'll always be good, even when we're running low on crumbly carbohydrates and I resort to pulverized rye crackers, as happened last week. The turkey-on-rye meatballs were a rousing success that got me to thinking that I'm a round-meat genius and also that I should be drinking more rye whiskey.
Do we all know the basics of the rye story by now? It was the most popular liquor in America before Prohibition, then it sort of faded away and became an old drunk's drink, now it's cool again, and we're a stronger nation for its reemergence. Dietsch tells me that a rye whiskey has to contain 51 percent of the headline grain, just as bourbon has to be 51 percent corn, and that it's fair to assume that most major-label ryes that don't disclose their exact recipe are using something on the order of 51 percent rye, 39 percent corn, and 10 percent barley. Maggie tells me that Rittenhouse and Bulleit are two ryes worth investigating. Let's get to it.
Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled in Bond is a bartenders' darling that's seen its retail price double since it was named North American Whiskey of the Year at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. But even the current price of $24 or so is a better than fair deal for a bottle of this ideal cocktail rye. Rittenhouse opens with an unexpectedly sweet orange impression that quickly gives way to more characteristic rye flavors of pepper, cinnammon, and wood, with gentle undertones of ginger and leather. Rittenhouse is a very assertive, almost feral rye that's best when tamed by other ingredients or at least a couple drops of water, but hardcore rye lovers will also appreciate it straight from the jug.
It makes perfect sense for Bulleit to produce a rye, since their widely acclaimed bourbon has one of the highest rye dosages (reportedly 28 percent) on the market. The Indiana-distilled Bulleit Rye is a whopping 95 percent rye, with just a little bit of malted barley along for the ride, yet it still manages a complexity reminiscent of carefully composed bourbon. There's a bit of floral and honey sweetness on the nose, with a caraway note that suggests rye bread (or mad-genius meatballs) and more interesting things to come. Given a couple minutes to gather itself in the glass, Bulleit emerges as a highly spicy rye with a unique style that blends cherry, cinnamon, nutmeg, dark pepper, leather, and tobacco parts into a whole that has just become one of my very favorite liquors. Rittenhouse's more straightforward approach makes it the better—or at least more reliable—cocktail rye, but for straight sipping, a bottle of Bulleit Rye is $30 very well spent.