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.
- Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whisky (not a great web site, but worth a look)
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.