In Praise of Well Liquor #2 Old Overholt Rye

Having rather put the boot into some of the darker aspects of the rye whiskey business, it’s time to show some love to the stuff. Because, when done right, it might just be my favourite thing in the world. That’s over and above even rum, upon which I was practically weaned.

The problem with rye is that it’s scarcity makes it comparatively expensive. Even the excellent entry level Jim Beam Rye costs between £20–30, depending on where you buy it. (Amazon sells it for £20, then it’s upwards from there.) Rittenhouse, also delicious, shows a larger price spread of £33-45, the higher levels being more than double what you’d pay for it in the States.

And that’s before we even start to consider Sazerac, the rye at the heart of New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, at an eye-watering £50 a bottle.

The key question, then, is: is it worth it?

Well…

Yes… Emphatically so.

Especially when you pony up for the Sazerac. With its hints of brown sugar lurking within the caramels imparted by its time in oak barrels, not to mention its cinnamon, allspice notes and slight whiff of a ripe grain field after a fresh fall of rain about it, it is superior stuff — a whiskey of real distinction.

Sazerac’s even a little pricey in the States. They simply don’t make very much of it. But the great survivor, Old Overholt, is made in larger volume.

Old Overholt is a fascinating product. Now produced by Jim Beam, it remains one of the few consistently produced American whiskeys, Prohibition notwithstanding.

It is one of those curious quirks of history. When the last of the Overholts, Henry Clay Frick (grandson of the founder, Abe) died in 1919, just before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, he left the business to Andrew Mellon, who would become the Treasury Secretary in Warren Harding’s prohibition over-seeing administration. At which point the business was looked after by the Union Trust Co., who received something in the region of 2 million gallons of rye.

Whether or not such government connections helped Old Overholt remain distillers of “medicinal” whiskey, available on prescription under prohibition’s repeal in 1933, remains to be seen… What’s more interesting, historically, is that is the only rye whiskey still made to a traditional Monongahela recipe. It is the oldest consistent whiskey style in America.

In the States, it is also cheap. You should be paying about $15. Though not here, where you’re looking at about £30 for a litre. Of course.

But it is still worth it, and not just for the fact that you’re tasting an historical recipe and the favourite tipple of one Doc Holiday. It’s that it’s delicious. It’s clean and bright on the palate, without the sweetness that typifies its cousin, bourbon, and with pleasing notes of cloves and white pepper.

If you’re new to rye, Rittenhouse is perhaps the place to start. It’s friendlier than Old Overholt, which takes rye’s austerity seriously. But, as with many of the taciturn persuasion, once it warms up to you, you’ll have found a stalwart friend.

If only there were more of it lurking in British bars.

In Praise Of Well Liquor #1—Gin

You don’t need me to tell you that premium liquor’s all the rage. All those sexy bottles, disporting themselves, flashing their labels, revelling in their shelf presence. Time to spare a thought for some of the others. The stuff hidden in the well. What you get if you just order a gin and tonic, and forget to specify your premium desires.

The contents of the well, or what’s lurking on the optics, tells you a lot about a joint awfully fast. If you walk in and they try to serve you Gordon’s, you know that they either know nothing about gin or they don’t care about their drinks, and you should leave at once. Gordon’s is a product responsible for more crimes against drinking than the 1980s. More on this soon.

The fact of it is that there is enormous quality lurking at the cheaper end of the market, often hiding right under your nose. And when it comes to gin, that means one thing: Beefeater.

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Beefeater is a premium gin hiding behind a very reasonable price. So reasonable, in fact, that I think some people have a snobby tendency to turn up their noses at it.

Bear in mind the following:

  1. It’s made by Desmond Payne, a master distiller who weighs out each botanical by hand for every distillation. His gin is as handmade as anyone else’s.
  2. Desmond oversaw the distilling aspects of MD Charles Rolls (now of Fever-Tree)’s transformation of Plymouth Gin from also-ran to PGI prestige.
  3. Desmond taught the guys behind gin premium-isation trend-setter Sipsmith how to make gin.

This is a man who really knows what he’s doing. If you need a convincer, you need to pop by the Beefeater Distillery, the only place where you can buy Desmond’s limited edition experiments in gin, my favourite of which is the subtly spectacular London Garden, which makes the most delicate martini I have ever had.

Some people out there are doing fascinating things with gin, interesting things with florals, spice, citrus, tea, you name it. (Someone—and you know who you are—is even doing hideous things with pine to create a gin which makes a martini that tastes like Toilet Duck, so let’s step away from that while we still can.)

You’re welcome to them.

Beefeater’s my buddy, and I can see no earthly reason why anyone would order anything else.