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Explorer: Rye Whiskey Is Back, With Flavors of American History

Over the last few years, though, that has changed, as rye has emerged as a go-to craft spirit of the moment. Interest in its production has also come back, as small artisanal distillers, like Templeton and Delaware Phoenix, have popped up across the country, referencing old recipes and archaeological records to create new spirits strongly rooted in tradition. And big whiskey companies that mostly make bourbon — Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill — are not only bottling small batches of specialty rye but offering tours to spirit enthusiasts.

This past spring, I went in search of these distillers, from San Francisco to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate, and found not just a rye revival, but also pieces of American history that for the most part had been lost: Americana through the golden prism of rye whiskey.

Anchor Distilling

In one case, it turns out, history tastes like “wet forest with a turpentine finish.” That’s according to my tasting notes, after sampling a rare stash of pre-Prohibition rye under the tutelage of Bruce Joseph, the master distiller at Anchor Distilling in San Francisco.

Eighteen years ago, Anchor was the first to dust off historic recipes and make rye in the style of George Washington more than 200 years ago: with small copper pot stills (the stills boil the alcohol off the fermented grain and purify it) and little aging, which is generally what mellows the spirit. At the time of his death, in 1799, Washington’s estate was the largest producer of whiskey in the country, turning out 11,000 gallons a year.

So: why rye? Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51 percent rye (a legal requirement), and has a peppery, complex flavor imparted from the grain; bourbon is at least 51 percent corn, and has a corresponding caramel sweetness.

“Rye is such a flavorful thing to make whiskey out of — it just bursts with fruit and spice,” Mr. Joseph said, adding that it is characteristically drier and livelier than bourbon. Three of the classic whiskey cocktails — the old-fashioned, the manhattan and the Sazerac — originally called for rye.

Despite the revival, rye still sits in the towering shadow of its more popular cousins; bourbon and Tennessee whiskey account for three-quarters of American whiskey production. Rye doesn’t even register as a category measured by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Yet tucked away in the warehouse of Anchor Brewing Company’s Potrero Hill brewery, Anchor Distilling makes three whiskeys under the Old Potrero brand in beautiful custom-made copper pot stills. The stills are straight out of Jules Verne, all shiny metal coils and portholes. Pot stills are very traditional and have a limited capacity; it’s a point of pride for a small-batch craft distiller to avoid using a large column still, which is more economical and allows for continuous, big-volume distilling.

“When we started, this was the only pot-distilled whiskey in the U.S.,” Mr. Joseph said. “We wanted to go back before bourbon, to colonial times, and we had to do a lot of digging in really old books to teach ourselves about it.”

Anchor’s whiskeys are made entirely from rye. Mr. Joseph invited me to swipe my finger through the colorless, unaged spirit running out of the still (barrel-aging is what gives whiskey its distinctive color). The distilled liquid, often called “white dog,” had a sharp, subtly sweet and herbal flavor.

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, Ky., is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country. A series of beautiful historical brick buildings situated along the banks of the Kentucky River, it was one of four distilleries allowed to operate during Prohibition, making whiskey “for medicinal purposes only” (more than 6 million prescriptions were written for whiskey during that era).

Most of what Buffalo Trace makes is bourbon, but in the mid-1800s, the distillery supplied the rye whiskey for Sazerac, the New Orleans bar that invented its namesake cocktail: rye, absinthe, sugar, plus a dash of bitters and a twist of lemon peel. Buffalo Trace is a big operation with two imposing column stills, but it also has a dedicated micro-still reserved for experimental, limited-release batches that play with unique grain combinations, as well as the types of barrels for aging.

The drive to Buffalo Trace is a tour through corn country, dazzling fields of it dotted with red barns. On the company’s entertaining “hard-hat” distillery tour, I was quickly reminded of the corn. The guide invited us to dip a finger in the fermenting vat of sweetly fragrant, bubbling mash; it tasted like sour corn porridge, the yeast enriched by nutrients in Kentucky limestone water.

The tasting room is licensed to offer bourbon only, but among the bottles is a white dog named, unsurprisingly, White Dog, a nod to the growing fashion among distilleries of offering unaged spirits in the historical style. It had a grassy heat to it and a barbed edge, especially when sampled alongside an elegant, toasty bourbon called Eagle Rare. My friend and I got our rye fix at Serafini, a nearby bar, where we asked for old-fashioneds made with the distillery’s Sazerac straight rye and Buffalo Trace bourbon, for comparison. The rye cocktail was subtler, less sweet. It felt, to me, like a more grown-up version.

George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill

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