As we know, everything old eventually becomes new again---this is why you still shouldn’t throw out those bell-bottoms and leisure suits.
Rye whisky is one of the hottest spirits on the market at the moment, despite the fact that it goes back hundreds of years. Rye became the center of controversy during the Whiskey Rebellion, when a tax was levied against farmers and distillers to help pay off America’s Revolutionary War debt. The citizens rebelled, and President George Washington dispatched a militia to put down the uprising. The President, ironically, was distilling his own rye at Mount Vernon (the restored distillery is operating again today, courtesy of the Distilled Spirits Council, and produces a limited quantity of whiskey).
The market for rye whiskey---along with most other brown spirits---evaporated during the vodka boom of the 1970s and 1980s. By the time the cocktail culture rose again from the dead toward the end of the 20th century, very few producers were making rye. The grain formed part of the mash bill formula for most Bourbons, and a certain amount of rye was blended into other whiskies, but it had ceased to be fashionable.
The current boom in rye, spearheaded by a legion of cutting-edge mixologists, took the industry by surprise. The mixologists were seeking flavor, and rye supplies all the flavor anyone could hope for: The whiskey is dramatic, firm and spicy, with assertive flavors of toasted grain and pepper. Rye had been the original foundation of the Manhattan, after all, and now it formed the basis for a new range of designer cocktails. It’s still in short supply, although most distilleries have increased production to meet demand.
When it comes to Canadian rye, the whiskey loses something in translation when it crosses the border. In the U.S., whiskey must have a minimum of 51% in the mash bill to be labeled rye; by law, the Canadian version only needs to contain 10%. Over time, in fact, most Canadians have come to refer to any blended whiskey produced in their country as rye.
All of this brings us to two new products, Tap 357 Canadian Maple Rye Whisky and Spicebox Canadian Spiced Whisky. Both are small batch whiskies, and both are flavored (with maple syrup in the case of Tap 357, and a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and three different types of vanilla beans in Spicebox). While both could certainly be sipped neat, it’s probably safe to say that they were designed with mixologists in mind.
Tap 357 is composed of cask-aged 3, 5 and 7 year-old Canadian rye whiskies. The spirits are produced at the oldest distillery in Western Canada and matured in a combination of new and used Bourbon barrels. It is then combined with Grade 1 Light maple syrup from the province of Quebec. The nose displays pleasant notes of grain and spice, along with scents of caramel. In the mouth, the sweetness is apparent but not dominant, with a hint of cotton candy balanced against the spiciness of the whiskey. The complex finish lasts for quite a while, beginning with flavors of caramel and giving way to pepper and spice.
Spicebox is a blend of Canadian whiskies between three and six years old, distilled in Alberta and aged in Bourbon barrels. Vanilla and baking spices perfume the nose, giving just the suggestion of sweetness against a firm, peppery foundation. It is more concentrated and forceful in the mouth than the Tap 357, with abundant whiskey character on entry, followed by harmonious flavors of vanilla, white chocolate, white pepper and nutmeg. The finish is long, sweet and spicy. This would be better suited to sipping on its own, while the Tap 357 would shine in cocktails---and both would make a spectacular hot toddy.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories---the type a writer could never make up.”