Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Monday, April 27, 2015

Don Draper and the History of Rye Whiskey

Posted By on Mon, Apr 27, 2015 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge WHISTLEPIG RYE
  • WhistlePig Rye

WhistlePig Rye
is a premium, 100 percent rye whiskey, aged for ten years, and bottled on a farm in rural Vermont. Already unique for its mash bill and age statement, the brand expanded its inventive flavors earlier this spring by introducing a limited line of exclusive finishes. Collectively known as the Old World Series, the three releases feature 12-year-old rye which comes to rest in used Sauterne, Madeira, and port barrels, respectively. They represent the first ryes of their kind to be available commercially. The first two expressions — retailing at $119 — have already hit the shelves here in San Francisco.

The final port finish arrives later this spring, before a blend of all three becomes a permanent addition to WhistlePig's portfolio. All three showcase a nutty, saccharine whisper that tangos gracefully with the spice of their high-rye base. The lengthy barrel aging of the spirit itself inserts a tannic oakiness as the underlying canvas upon which the sweet wine characteristics resolve themselves.

Such an elegant expression of rye, commanding a triple-digit price tag, is hardly audacious in the contemporary whiskey landscape. But until recently, rye was an often-misunderstood variety of whiskey. Relatively flavorless, ham-handedly blended Canadian versions didn’t alleviate the confusion. Fans of Mad Men might recognize the beverage as Don Draper’s drink of choice. But the ‘60s swill depicted in that popular period drama bears next to no relation to the high-end ryes coming to market today.

Raj Peter Bhakta, founder of WhistlePig and something of a rye historian himself, spoke exclusively with the SF Weekly to set the record straight. His insight is of interest to whiskey devotees and Mad Man junkies, alike. Here, in his words, is a rundown on what’s what. Class is in session…

This spring, millions of Americans will tune in for the finale of Mad Men. “The End of an Era” will show Don Draper and his colleagues partaking in their usual antics, including a healthy dose of “business lunches” fueled by a multitude of spirits.

Don enjoys his rye whiskey, which was actually an uncommon drink in the mid-20th century when Mad Men takes place. Today, whiskey lovers are certainly familiar with rye, a spirit noted for its bold and spicy flavor that continues to explode in popularity. What many people don’t know, however, is that rye has a long and proud tradition in American history, dating back to the colonial era.

Originally brought to the shores of America by Dutch colonists, the rye grain flourished in the United States, especially in the cold climate of the northeastern states. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, rye became the drink of choice, with small batch distilleries sprouting up all across the country. In fact, George Washington himself famously distilled rye at his Mount Vernon estate, which you can still visit today.

The central role rye played in colonial life cannot be overstated. It was America’s drink through and through, and a main component of the rugged American ethos.

With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, Congress ushered in prohibition, a legal ban on alcohol beverages for recreational use. During prohibition, rye whiskey, like all spirits, went underground. However, after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933, rye never made the comeback it was seemingly destined to make. For a variety of reasons, bourbon emerged as the dominant drink, which is distilled from corn, and therefore sweeter.

Rye remained relatively dormant during the middle part of the 20th century, despite what Don Draper might have you believe. In fact, Draper actually consumed generic Canadian whiskey, which was incorrectly referred to as rye during that period. To be fair, these whiskeys did include rye, but typically a very small amount. Today’s rye is referred to as straight rye whiskey and must be made from mash containing at least 51 percent rye and aged for a minimum of two years.

Over the last decade, the popularity of whiskey has grown exponentially. Fueling this growth to a large extent is rye, which is increasingly finding itself into some of the most famous cocktails, including an Old Fashioned and a Sazerac. Noted for its bold flavor, rye is also a popular choice for the true whiskey connoisseur, who enjoys sipping on whiskey neat.

So when you tune in to Mad Men every Sunday, remember that the rye Don Draper is drinking is not the same rye that you can enjoy today at your favorite watering hole. In the coming years, you should expect to see straight American rye continue to garner recognition and retake its place as America’s whiskey. 

  • Pin It

Tags: , , , ,

About The Author

Brad Japhe

Brad Japhe

I enjoy my whiskey neat, my beer hoppy, and my meat medium rare. I have been covering craft spirits, suds, and gourmet cuisine for a decade, with work published from New York, across Montana, and up and down the Pacific Coast.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"