Over the weekend, my wife and I went to a Christmas crafts festival at National Harbor’s soon-to-be-a-casino ‘events center’ location. This is the piece of up-the-hill property away from the harbor development proper, and it’s where Cirque du Soleil has set up the last couple of times it was in town.
What made this particular crafts fest different was that there was a tasting area where you could try out a variety of wines, beers and spirits for a few bucks. When you go to something like this, you have to make a decision: if you decide to sample the spirits, you can pretty much forget about the wine because you’ll never taste it anyway. As a beer-and-bourbon geek and a wine neophyte, my decision was easy.
There really wasn’t a very impressive or large beverage selection of beverages at the event. But the surprise to me was the rye I tried.
Like I said, I’m a bourbon guy when it comes to quality spirits. But there’s no getting around it: Bourbon is really nothing more than pappy’s corn squeezings all dressed up. A few years in a charred oak barrel transforms the whiskey from your basic clear white lightning into your softer, generally sweeter, reddish burbon.
But before the Great Depression, if you went into a bar and asked for whiskey, you probably got rye. As the name suggests, rye is made predominantly from the grain that gave it its name, but it’s otherwise made in a process identical to bourbon. But it’s easier and cheaper to make bourbon from more abundant corn, so bourbon started taking over when bootleggers slaked the American thirst during Prohibition. As a result, when Prohibition was lifted, bourbon began to replace rye as the American whiskey of choice. And by the 1960s, rye was all but gone.
It’s making a bit of a comeback now, propelled in part by craft distillers and a new interest in old-school cocktails (you can’t make a true Manhattan or a Sazerac without rye). And at the fest, craft distiller Filibuster was offering samples of both its bourbon and rye.
The bourbon was a bit of a teeth-kicker, too heavy on the alcohol burn for my taste and reminding me more than a little of Knob Creek. But the rye was more interesting, with a bit of vanilla flavor and a really nice sweetness and depth — but there was a bit of that alcohol kick in there, too.
It turns out that Filibuster ages its rye for only two years, but then mixes it with a bit of longer-aged bourbon. It then continues to age the product in non-charred oak barrels previously used for white wine. The product is considered a rye because its mash bill is 95 percent rye — far more than needed to be classified as a rye whiskey.
I bought Bottle 866 of the first batch ever made of the stuff. At $30 for 750 milliliters, it was about the price of a reasonable higher-quality bourbon — say, a Woodford Reserve, which it resembles a bit. Despite the Washington-sounding name, it actually was distilled in Indiana and it’s bottled by a Kentucky company. But it is very good and very interesting, and I might end up exploring rye whiskeys for a while.
* If you are of a certain age and a certain geekiness, you might recognize the title from an old school video adventure game:
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