A look at rye's return to the cocktail scene. Plus, a recipe for Summer Rye Sparkling Cider.

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There’s a modern day whiskey rebellion brewing.

Rye, once the quintessential American whiskey (it even was distilled by George Washington), is pushing back from an obscurity triggered in part by Prohibition, but also by the post-Prohibition rise of its cousin, bourbon.

Last year, rye sales were up 30 percent over 2007, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And since 2007, more than 15 new brands have come to market, including Jim Beam’s premium (ri)1.

“Cocktail trendsetters across the country really dig on rye,” says Duggan McDonnell, a bartender at San Francisco’s Cantina. “And tastemakers love the flavor profile. It’s being rediscovered and applied to a ton of cocktails. What was hip long ago is cool again.”

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Whereas bourbon is distilled primarily from corn, rye must be distilled from a mash of at least 51 percent rye grain. That difference is part of what accounts for rye’s bite. Rye tends to be more bitter and spicier than bourbon. Many ryes have a peppery undertone.

“Rye’s got that Cassius Clay uppercut,” says McDonnell. “People don’t sip it as much because it doesn’t have that svelte, back palette finish that bourbon does.”

It’s that spicy, complex flavor that makes rye so much fun to play with in cocktails.

“It’s great with citrus flavors,” says Colleen Mullaney, author of the cocktail cookbook “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.” “Grapefruit, lemon and orange flavors lighten rye up a bit. But it can also handle full-flavored liqueurs and bitters.”

Rye is benefiting from the booming speakeasy culture, which has renewed interest in playing with cocktails. More so-called mixologists are rediscovering old recipes, putting new spins on the classics and creating wholly new concoctions with unusual spirits.

“The revival is really nationwide,” says Mullaney. “You can see it everywhere from people entertaining at home who want to whip up a pitcher of signature cocktails to the fancy cocktail lists at bars and hip restaurants.”

For example, using rye instead of bourbon in a Manhattan makes for a version of the classic that’s far less sweet. McDonnell serves it in a Carmen Amaya (a mix of rye, Cointreau, fresh lemon, muddled basil and amontillado sherry), and a Prize Filly (a mix of rye, flavored bitters and maraschino liqueur).

Here’s another way to serve rye:


Start to finish: 5 minutes

Servings: 1

2 lemon wedges

1 ounce rye

½ ounce apricot brandy

2 to 3 ounces sparkling apple cider

Squeeze 1 lemon wedge into a tall glass, then drop it into the glass. Fill the glass with ice. Add the rye and apricot brandy, then top with sparkling cider. Stir gently, then garnish with a lemon wedge.

(Recipe adapted from Kathy Casey’s “Sips & Apps,” 2009, Chronicle Books

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