In gold-rush-era San Francisco, bars lined every block of the Barbary Coast, the area where pioneer mixologists -- back when they were called bartenders -- honed their craft. Rye whiskey was their staple. A hundred years later, a visitor would have been lucky to find one or two rye labels on the shelves of bars in major U.S. cities; bourbon had taken over as the American whiskey.
Over the past few years, though, rye has emerged as a go-to craft spirit of the moment. Interest in its production also has come back, as small artisanal distillers 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 are not only bottling small batches of specialty rye, but also offering tours to spirit enthusiasts.
In 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 history that for the most part had been lost: Americana through the golden prism of rye whiskey.
In one case, it turns out, history tastes like "wet forest with a turpentine finish." That's according to my notes, after sampling a rare stash of pre-Prohibition rye with 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 and little aging, which mellows the spirit. At the time of Washington's death, in 1799, his 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," Joseph said, adding that it is characteristically drier and livelier than bourbon.
Anchor Distilling makes three whiskeys under the Old Potrero brand in beautiful custom-made copper pot stills.
"When we started, this was the only pot-distilled whiskey in the U.S.," 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."
Joseph invited me to swipe my finger through the colorless, unaged spirit running out of the still. The distilled liquid, often called "white dog," had a sharp, subtly sweet and herbal flavor.
Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, Ky., is the nation's oldest continuously operating distillery. 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."
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 limited-release batches.
The tasting room is licensed to offer bourbon only, but among the bottles is a white dog (named 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
Last year, Mount Vernon released the first batch of rye made in stills reconstructed by its team of archaeologists, historians and historic trade interpreters, all under the direction of a master distiller. I arrived there on a lovely spring day in the height of cherry blossom season. Bypassing the tour buses parked at the estate, I drove 3 miles west on winding roads to the distillery and gristmill, situated creek-side on 7 verdant acres.
The archaeological excavation, restoration and reconstruction of the plantation's distillery took about a decade; the building opened in 2007 with five copper pot stills on their original footprints.
"We had amazing documentation: We knew who the stonemason was, who was working here, how much they were being paid," said Dennis Pogue, who oversaw the reconstruction. All that knowledge means a richer experience for visitors; you can even page through a replica of a ledger in the distillery storage room.
Washington sold mostly to neighbors within a 5-mile radius, Pogue told me. Trading was common. In 1799, apparently, a Sarah Chichester who lived down the road paid in corn and wheat for 32 gallons of Washington's whiskey, fine flour and 7,000 herring.
But what about the whiskey? "People kept saying, 'You're teasing us here -- what does it taste like?'" Pogue said. "So we decided to make enough to offer for sale and see how it went." With help from Dave Pickerell, a former master distiller at Maker's Mark, Pogue and his team used Washington's recipe and methods to make a twice-distilled unaged rye whiskey, using a mash of rye, corn and malted barley that was the standard of the time. When the whiskey was released last year, it sold out in a few hours. Since then, the distillery has released two other batches; the first aged reserve was released in late October.
Visitors can tour the distillery and watch demonstrations of 18th-century whiskeymaking, complete with costumed distillers who stoke the fire and stir the mash. If you happen to be around when the team is making real rye, ask for a taste of white dog the Washington way -- straight from a wooden bucket.