The Bottles – Rye Whiskey

The Rittenhouse Julep
The Rittenhouse Julep

Growing up a child of the Saturday morning matinee, I had much of my perspective of the American West shaped by the lens of John Ford. In any given Ford Western (or, for that matter, any other Western before or since), there is always a scene where one hombre cozies up to the long oak bar and orders a drink. Depending upon the drink ordered, you could tell a lot about the man. If a sarsaparilla was his poison, it stood to figure that someone would be getting the better of him before the sun faded into the end credits. However, if he slammed his palm on the counter and — in a gravelly, trail-weary voice — demanded a rye, well, he was not somebody to be taken lightly.

Just tonight, my buddy John stopped by. John’s great in that he’ll try anything I put before him; however, when he saw that Bottle No. 2 was going to be rye, he was a bit skeptical. Rye has a reputation of being little more than “red eye” — a tipple so harsh that its very name conjures up something akin to brown moonshine. Sure, the bad stuff probably was just that, but fortunately, we live in an age where the rye hitting the local liquor store shelves (if at all) is pretty decent stuff.

Now, to be fair, whether your Bottle No. 2 is rye or a favorite bourbon is completely up to you. For the vast majority of cocktails in which they are used, they are interchangeable. Heck, the julep you see pictured above can be made with rye, bourbon, or cognac (or a combination thereof). The key to Bottle No. 2 is finding a rye/bourbon that you like. Period. Having said that, now I’ll tell you why Rittenhouse is your man.

First, it’s rye. It’s what the aforementioned gunslinger ordered, and every time you pour it, you’ll remember that. It’s Deadwood in a bottle. I have nothing against bourbon, but rye is simply… cooler. Here’s a good comparison: Bourbon has a place in the hearts and lives of American males much the same as Harley Davidson. Harleys are fine machines, and they are the very definition of an American motorcycle. Having said that, every accountant who thinks he’s Peter Fonda has one. They just aren’t cool anymore — at least, not in the way they used to be. Having said that, I’ll take one in a second if it’s given to me, and part of me still covets them. I can’t help it, I was raised on the myth, just as with bourbon.

Of course, once you’ve got a shovelhead on the brain, that’s when you see the Indian Chief (photo here, courtesy of the Solvang Motorcycle Museum. Go visit them.) And once you see that Indian, no Harley will do. That’s rye.

Second, Rittenhouse is a fabulous bottle that’ll only set you back about $20. Sure, there may be better rated brands on the market (not many), but they’ll cost you a bit more. Rittenhouse will even sell you a 23-year-old version for $175. Go with the $20 stuff. It’s not the price, specifically, that matters; it’s the fact that you’ll feel more comfortable pouring it. Making juleps for a dozen friends? No big deal. In-laws unexpectedly drop-by? Not a problem. Any good host should always be ready to offer up a drink without issue, and the expensive stuff will make you hold back or, worse yet, think twice about replacing the bottle once it’s gone empty.

Third, this particular Rittenhouse is bottled-in-bond. Basically, that means that it complies with the terms of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, whereby the U.S. government guarantees that it’s the real deal. Today, the label is relatively antiquated. Still, a year or so ago, I went whiskey shopping for my father-in-law, and, being a Southern Gentleman of the old school, he insisted on the bottled-in-bond product. If we want to drink like the cowboys, we should stick by the cowboys’ rules, so bottled-in-bond it is.

Finally, it’s delicious. And that alone should be reason enough.

Esoterica: Rittenhouse is a Pennsylvania-style rye, which makes it all the more cantankerous. In 1791, Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was looking for ways to help pay off the new nation’s war debt. He noticed that when rum shipments stopped during the war, his fellow countrymen started buying a great amount of the domestically-distilled stuff, namely whiskey. In true “we’re the government, we need money” fashion, Hamilton decided to levy an excise tax on all distilled spirits. Unfortunately, the tax heavily favored the larger distillers, so a motley crew of small farmers up in Pennsylvania decided to rebel (hey, it had worked a few decades earlier, right?). The problem for them was that the man who decided to give them an eye-to-eye “what for” was President George Washington himself (well, him and thirteen thousand of his well-trained, armed friends). Needless-to-say, by the time Washington arrived at the scene, the farmers had thought better of their plan and returned home to rifle through their piggy banks for the tax money. The tax was later repealed, but the incident is considered to be the U.S. federal government’s first flexing of its authority over its citizens.

31 Responses to “The Bottles – Rye Whiskey”

  1. Tiger Lily
    November 16, 2010 at 6:13 pm #

    How do you feel about Old Overholt? A good friend of mine prefers it, and I am admittedly a neophyte when it comes to whiskey- all I ever drink (when I do) are Jameson, Old Crow, and Woodford Reserve…

    • November 16, 2010 at 9:29 pm #

      I like Old Overholt. If memory serves, it’s about 10% less ABV than the Rittenhouse, which makes it a great fit for someone who likes softer whiskeys. As more alcohol tends to bring more flavor, I chose the Rittenhouse.

      • Tiger Lily
        November 16, 2010 at 11:07 pm #

        Excellent point- I like the booze in my booze, personally…. I’ll check out the Rittenhouse then :)

  2. Rae
    July 20, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Okay so I just tried Rittenhouse for the first time last week in a Manhattan(been looking for it everywhere but our import laws in British Columbia are… ridiculous, but thankfully my favourite cocktail bar keeps it around) — and wow. Honestly the best rye I’ve ever had. Thank you so much for the recommendation.

    I told all the bartenders there about your blog, and they all seemed pretty excited about it, so hopefully you’ll have more people to add to your readership! Keep up the good work. :)

    • July 20, 2011 at 9:06 am #

      Rae – thank you so much! We’re thrilled when people try what we recommend and even more thrilled when they like it. If you’re not opposed to fizzy drinks, we highly recommend the Rittenhouse in a Buck or a Rye Rogers.

  3. Joshua Maxson
    December 13, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    Thought I’d recommend trying to track down Templeton’s Small Batch Rye Whiskey. Not sure where you are in California, but it is distributed in limited quantities in San Fran. Otherwise, if you happen to be in Illinois or Iowa for some reason, keep an eye peeled, it’s some amazing stuff! The back story is lots of fun too. 

    Just found your site and really digging it. Already tried a couple new cocktails and loved them. Thanks for the hard work in putting it up!

  4. psl
    April 6, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

    Just tried this: for those of you who like a more rounded rye, the Bulleitt rye (about $32-35 bottle) is much nicer in a Perfect Manhattan in my hands.

    • twelvebottles
      April 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

      I’m a fan of the Bulleit too. It may just show up when we reboot our rye selections.


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