11 April 2014

From the Archives: Squeegee Your Anomie with Rye Whiskey

Max Toste of Deep Ellum decants a Rye Manhattan
(photo courtesy of The Boston Herald)
As I rarely have time to create original essays for this blog, I occasionally reprint ancient pieces of mine, including articles I wrote long ago for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig (now known as Dig Boston), many of which became unavailable online after its mid-2007 website makeover.

Here’s one of a series of cocktail pieces I did for The Dig focusing on little-known and underappreciated spirits, in this case, American straight rye whiskey. Rye was just making its comeback in Boston bars with the help of the scene’s best craft cocktail purveyors; few local food writers seemed to have noticed. I also suspect this is a very early mention in the Boston press of a raw-egg cocktail.

It’s a film noir world: drop that Technicolor cocktail
First published in Boston’s Weekly Dig, February 21, 2007

Rye commands reverence among booze historians as America’s oldest whiskey, the original base of ancient cocktails like the Manhattan. Yet despite cultish adherents and growing press attention, rye cruises in the blind spot of most Boston bartenders. Order it and you’re liable to get a blank stare, or an unassuming blended Canadian whisky like Crown Royal, a substitute that Americans had to settle for during Prohibition. Repeal came too late to restore American rye’s fortunes: bourbon had usurped the American whiskey throne, relegating the impoverished surviving ryes to the plebian front-end of Boilermakers.

Philip Marlowe, the archetypal private detective of 1940s hardboiled crime fiction, slugged rye from bottles stashed in his desk and glove box. Preferring brash rye to sweeter, mellower bourbon flagged Raymond Chandler’s protagonist as an old-school hard guy. The assertive bite Marlowe favored is distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain (where bourbon uses sugar-rich corn) and aged in charred-oak barrels. Respectable ryes under $40 are still produced by venerable brands like Van Winkle and Sazerac, but this roughneck is also getting the super-premium makeover: you can now drop $100 or more on 21-year-old ryes from boutique producers like The Classic Cask.

As for cocktails, rye’s emphatic character is ill-suited to the sickly-sweet concoctions that rookies order when they graduate from Goldschläger shots. Crafting a well-balanced rye cocktail demands a certain scholarly, 19th-century rigor and inventiveness. Such precise bartending chops are cultivated at only a handful of local bars, like Cambridge’s B-Side Lounge, which spearheaded Boston's vintage-cocktail revival and has trained some of our best mixologists. At these elite establishments, rye is one tool in the campaign to hoist Boston drinkers out of the dark age of chocolate “martinis”. When you’re ready for a grown-up drink with some grizzled authenticity, try curling your lip like Bogart and ordering a rye cocktail from one of these expert purveyors.

Green Street. Dylan Black, proprietor of this recently-remade Central Square restaurant that serves robust New England fare, is an accomplished barman and savant of American imbibing history. His long cocktail list prominently features rye. The Daisy Black ($7.50) – named for his great-grandfather, himself a bartender in rye’s original heyday – softens the burred edges of Old Overholt rye with fresh lemon juice and honey syrup. More adventurous tipplers might try the Toronto ($8), a prize fight in a cocktail glass: jangly rye duking it out with blackish, poisonously-bitter Fernet Branca, with simple syrup trodden underfoot. You might flirt with the cross-dressing weirdness of the Double Standard ($8), which drapes rye in fruity, Cosmo-pink togs of Plymouth gin, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. Or you could just savor some Michter’s rye ($6) plain with a bit of water, a better match for this gastro-tavern’s bluff, unaffected charm.

Green Street, 280 Green St, Cambridge. 617.876.1655 www.greenstreetgrill.com/

Deep Ellum. This Allston newcomer serves a creative pub-food menu, but is foremost a connoisseur’s beer bar with 22 drafts, 90+ bottles, a cask unit, and lots of brew-specific glassware. Fortunately, co-owner Max Toste is also a devotee of old-time cocktails like the Sazerac ($7): Old Overholt rye, Peychaud’s bitters and simple syrup stirred with ice, decanted into a cocktail glass rinsed with anise-scented Absente pastis, finished with a lemon twist. After just one, I feel like an honored guest at a particularly well-appointed French Quarter brothel. Less complicated but also delightful is the Rye Sour ($7), rye and a house-made sour mix of fresh citrus juices and sugar. With several brands to choose from, including Old Potrero, a 100%-malt-rye straight whiskey from San Francisco that Max declares “better for sipping”, we’ll return to explore obscure corners of Deep Ellum’s vintage bar guides. Maybe that beer list, too.

Deep Ellum, 477 Cambridge St, Allston. 617-787-2337, www.deepellum-boston.com/

No. 9 Park. The cocktail cheffery practiced at this luxury Italian/French restaurant near the State House may be the best in Boston, worth suffering the obnoxious company of its toffee-nosed Beacon Hill regulars. Occasional twee flourishes of molecular gastronomy, like toppings of nitrous-oxide foams, are forgivable: the bar staff executes the classics with integrity and impeccable ingredients. A Green Point ($11) takes Old Overholt rye and Punt e Mes, an intensely-aromatized Italian sweet vermouth, and adds Green Chartreuse liqueur for herbal complexity and a faint sweetness. The result is a multi-faceted, mahogany-hued riff on the Manhattan, gorgeously trimmed with a fresh cherry steeped in Maraschino liqueur (no horrific candied-clown-nose garnishes here). After dinner, I order a Rye Flip ($10). Heads swivel as Courtney [Hennessey] cracks a raw egg into a dry shaker, agitates it, adds ice, Rittenhouse rye and simple syrup, shakes it again long and hard, strains it into a claret glass, and grinds some fresh nutmeg on top. Half the bar watches my first swallow; the effete blueblood-wannabe on my left cringes with nausea. I grin. This is what real nog is supposed to taste like: rich, potent, just barely sweet. I feel virtuous, vigorous, like a star in my own black-and-white movie. While I agree with Chandler that “It is not a fragrant world,” the right rye cocktail can certainly refresh it for a moment.

No. 9 Park, 9 Park St, Boston. 617.742.9991 www.no9park.com