Rye whiskey—bourbon’s well-seasoned older brother, bold and peppery on the nose, with grassy, almost floral tones as it goes down—is ingrained in American history. Following a decline in popularity, rye has been on a comeback. Now it’s making its mark in Miami as well.
Early settlers in Pennsylvania and Maryland, galvanized by distilling skills brought from the Old World, took to rye since it was easy to grow. But rye didn’t fare so well in the 20th century. Blame it on Prohibition, which shut down distilleries and shifted public taste toward smuggled Canadian and Scotch whiskeys. By the time Prohibition ended, many companies already had invested in Kentucky (where corn was abundant) to focus on bourbon.
“Corn cost less and yielded more whiskey per bushel,” says Joe Magliocco, president of Michter’s Distillery, producer of both ryes and bourbons. “The taste of bourbon also suited the public’s growing fondness for sweeter drinks—during Prohibition, people blended their poor-quality bootleg liquor with anything that could mask its harsh flavor.”
Yet in the past several years, rye has become a favorite of American whiskey enthusiasts and mixologists looking for idiosyncratic flavors, even if it’s on a small scale (with the current sales volume still a fraction of bourbon’s).
At the Broken Shaker, an alluring pop-up cocktail speakeasy inside the Indian Creek Hotel on Miami Beach, you can find five or six brands of rye (including Pappy Van Winkle, Sazerac, and Russell’s Reserve Rye). The drinks there rotate on a weekly basis, and about 10 percent of its cocktail creations contain rye—no surprise since the place is run by owners Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta, the founders of Bar Lab. For instance, they’ve combined rye with a fennel-Campari-goji berry reduction, homemade orange and lemon bitters, and a bit of Punt e Mes vermouth, to devise a concoction called the Voodoo Child.
“Rye is known for a spicy, hard-edged firmness that is absolutely unique,” says Ramsey Pimentel, the master mixologist at The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach. He says the recent surge comes less from customer demand than an effort on the bartenders’ part: “For cocktails, [rye] has so much, from aromatic elements to its ability to work with exotic fruits and syrup.” The Ritz carries six brands of rye (such as (ri)1, pronounced “rye one,” and Hudson Manhattan), and Pimentel serves cocktails including the Smoke and Mirrors, with bacon-infused rye, passion fruit purée, and jalapeño syrup.
“With an increased interest in mixology, people are turning to more unexplored spirits like rye,” says Chris MacLeod, co-owner of The Corner, a new bar north of downtown Miami, which carries Bulleit. “Drinkers are more educated and are excited about ingredients and whiskeys that haven’t been overly used or branded.”