Maybe it was just coincidence, but on Christmas Day, The New York Times business section had a front page, top-of-the-fold feature about the boom in bourbon sales (“Bourbon’s All-American Roar”) while the travel section had a full page feature declaring that “rye is back” (“Rye is Back, With Flavors of Americana”). As we point out in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, bourbon and rye are both whiskeys. Bourbon is a corn-based spirit distilled to no more than 160 proof, while rye is a purely rye-based whiskey, though the term is also used to describe a blended whiskey made from corn, rye, rye malt and barley distillates. Bourbon and rye are the foundation of several cocktails featured in Mad Men including the Old Fashioned, which can be made with either, though Don Draper prefers his with rye, the Mint Julep and, of course, the Manhattan.
We don’t know if Mad Men has anything to do with this resurgence of bourbon and rye, but an ad man like Don would probably agree with the Times’s Mickey Meece that, “today’s bourbon boom represents a triumph of salesmanship.” Even in this tough economy, bourbon distillers are thriving, “cashing in on an American renaissance in whiskey-based cocktails, as well as a growing thirst for bourbon around the world.” Bourbon even has the imprimatur of the United States Congress which decreed in 1964 (the middle of the Mad Men era) that “bourbon whiskey is a distinctive product of the United States.” In a move that might make a purist cringe, distillers are even creating flavored bourbons infused with cherry, honey and spice.
Rye, a mid-19th century staple, largely fell out of favor by the mid-20th century, yielding to bourbon. But, as Ronnie Tsui writes in the Times, “rye has emerged as the go-to craft spirit of the moment.”
Though it still lives in the shadow of bourbon, rye afficionados claim it is livelier and drier than bourbon, writes Tsui, noting that three of the most classic whiskey cocktails – the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac (named for the New Orleans bar where the cocktail was invented) – were all initially made with rye. Rye, too, has quite an American heritage: the nation’s largest producer in 1799 was none other than former President George Washington who died that year; he made 11,000 gallons of the stuff annually.
We have recipes for the Old Fashioned and Manhattan in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, but not the Sazerac, so we’ll include one here, but understand that there are probably as many versions of the Sazerac as there are bartenders in New Orleans! This rendition is adapted from Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts (Grosset & Dunlap, 1949).
a few drops of Absinthe or Pernod
3 dashes Peychaud bitters
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 lemon twist, for garnish
1. Store an Old Fashioned glass in the freezer until thoroughly chilled.
2. Put the Absinthe or Pernod into chilled glass, then tilt and roll the glass until the inside is thoroughly coated.
3. Place ice cubes in a tall mixing glass and add rye and Peychaud bitters. Stir until well-chilled.
4. Pour, without the ice, into chilled glass. Add lemon twist.
Yield: 1 drink