Rye whisk(e)y smackdown: USA vs. Canada
Seven spicy ryes did congregate on my dining room table last Saturday night, as I held a seven-brand (but really six) Rye Whisk(e)y Smackdown! It was a blind tasting pitting three U.S. rye whiskies against three from my beloved homeland, Canada (which is currently thawing out, thanks for asking).
First: What is rye?
The quick answer: Rye is the traditional whisky of North America, equal parts sweet and spicy, usually with a dry finish. It’s frankly rather virile. It’s the drink I had in mind when I named this website. I like to imagine it as the frontier whisky; the whisky of rogues and cowboys and ornery farmers, to get them drunk
while committing genocide against indigenous peoples during poker games — even if nowadays rye is the whisky of big-city guys who like to wear vests and bowties. Shits like me, in other words.
And if you want to know more, scroll down for a few points about how we make it differently on each side of the border.
Anyhoo. I asked my friends to make brief notes and rate each rye out of 10. Six of them were attentive and sober enough to manage the simple task. (One person handed me a paper with no number ratings, notes on just four of the whiskies, and chocolate smears that would make a toddler proud.)
At last, the average ratings, in order:
Winner: Sazerac Rye (six-year-old), Team USA
Average score: 7.6
(Most) guests loved the earthy depth and sweetness of this product of the Buffalo Trace distillery. They liked the full-flavoured oakiness and the toasty flavours. And they drank all but the last few drops of the stuff.
2. Rittenhouse Bonded, Team USA
Goddamn it, another U.S. rye on the podium. Oh well. Guests noted that the strength and citrus flavours of Rittenhouse would work well in an old-fashioned. This is true. I have wise friends.
3. Alberta Premium Dark Horse, Team Canada
Finally, we get a Canadian rye. While only one guest chose Dark Horse as the favourite (hi, Dan), no one shit on it, either. I personally like the stuff, and agree with those who thought it balanced if slightly oily, with nice caramel notes.
4. Lot No. 40, Team Canada
Weirdly, my friends were convinced this was their second-favourite rye despite rather mixed ratings. It’s divisive stuff. I like the explosive flavours (banana! spice!) but not everyone did, and one person drew a penis on the score card to underline that point.
5. High West Double Rye, Team USA
Yee haw! High West travelled all the way from Utah to Canada to git called “sharp,” “harsh,” and similar things. (Also: “clean,” according to two judges.) That ain’t no way to treat a stranger.
Last place: Alberta Premium (regular), Team Canada
Judges were tough on the “simple, dry” mainstay of Canadian bars, but hey, it’s affordable stuff and savvy bar managers from coast to coast are going to keep on stocking it, so there.
TEAM USA OVERALL SCORE: 7.05
TEAM CANADA OVERALL SCORE: 6.47
Shit, eh. Well, congratulations, America.
Finally, as a reward for getting shitfaced, I plied the guests with a bottle of Sazerac 18 Year Old, which I felt was too expensive/rare to compete fairly. People who managed to speak coherently said they liked it. It’s really spicy, earthy, deep and complex stuff and probably would have whipped the rest of the competition. Maybe I’ll arrange a Sazerac vs. Sazerac playoff one day …
For the geeks: Canadian rye versus American rye
While Canadian and American rye are rather different things at times, all of the ryes in this smackdown are known to be made from a certain amount of rye grain, from the rumoured 51% of Sazerac to the 100% of all the Canadian entries.
And both kinds compete to be the go-to whisky in a Manhattan. All U.S. ryes and these three 100% rye Canadian ryes work well in Old Fashioneds and a host of less-well-known classics, like the Scofflaw. Oh, and you should really only make a Sazerac cocktail with American rye. Canadian rye doesn’t work as well.
… does not actually contain rye by law. However, traditionally it contained more rye than American whiskey, so people got into the habit of calling all Canadian whisky “rye.” Confusingly, even Canadians who insist on calling Canadian whisky “Canadian whisky” and not “rye” refer to the trio above as “rye,” because they’d be ryes by the American definition. Anyway, just read this book already to learn everything you need to know about Canadian whisky.
In contrast to Canadian “rye,” American rye whiskey must actually be made with at least 51% rye grain; in practice, the mash bill is often a lot higher — above 90% in many cases.
Everything I’ve read about rye says Americans preferred it to sweeter bourbon before Prohibition, and that the country’s two main whiskey styles traded places thereafter. Thing is, I’ve searched in vain for an explanation or evidence — although it is true that my old cocktail books don’t mention bourbon very often at all, while rye is commonplace.
On both sides of the border, rye has been making a comeback in recent years — Canadian bars are stocking the “real” ryes of Alberta Distillers and quickly adopting the newly revived Lot No. 40. And the rye revolution is even further ahead in the U.S., as the media have noticed.
Rye is a little rough but it’s lovely. Drink it.