Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pennsyltuckey Bound

Speak to someone who's visited rural Western Pennsylvania, and there's a good chance you'll hear the word "Pennsyltuckey" used in a derogatory fashion. It's a geographically-specific slur close in line with words like hick, hillbilly, and redneck; but this insult carries with it a sadness, harkening to a proud rural tradition that was forced to find a new home some 215 years ago, and with it a distinctive regional libation.

Before the days of highways and airports, the Appalachian Mountains were a significant geographical boundary cutting through the heart of Pennsylvania. So significant was this barrier that Western Pennsylvania applied to the Continental Congress as a separate state called Westsylvania. They were categorically denied. Still, they fought fiercely in the revolution with rifled-barrel long arms called "Jagers". Once independence was won, they hung up their Pennsylvania Rifles and returned to their lives of farming and distilling a uniquely American spirit: Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey.

When the new federal government imposed exorbitant taxes on small distilleries, the primary source of income for these fiercely independent Westsylvanians was eliminated. The violent Whiskey Rebellion that followed was quelled only when an army larger than was needed to win the revolution marched on Pittsburgh. Rather than bend to federal oppression, many farmers packed up their rifles and whiskey and moved to more remote territories like Kentucky where the federal government had little influence. In this new home, their unique spirits would evolve as corn became the dominant grain, and aging in charred white oak barrels transformed Pennsylvania Rye into Kentucky Bourbon.

But Rye continued to be the dominant spirit in the rapidly expanding United States for over a century, with large companies replacing the over-taxed independent distilleries. Beer or wine were seldom seen as liquor traveled much better; and Rye relied solely on domestic ingredients, unlike the previous American booze king: rum. Even after the Civil War, the American West was not fueled by "redeye" (which is, in fact, not even alcohol, but a highly poisonous derivative of sterno) nor by Bourbon, now revered as the most American of spirits. No, when Doc Holiday strode up to a bar and knocked on the countertop, it would have been a bottle of Pennsylvania, or "Monongahela" Rye that would have been placed in front of him.

Prohibition finally sounded the death-knell for Rye. The advent of the cocktail and the bootlegging of Canadian whiskey during those dry times acclimatized American pallets to sweeter alcohol; and the smoother, smokey taste of bourbon won people over after repelation. Soon the names of Craig and Beam were supplanting Overholt and Schenley on backbars. Rye was at best a specialty, at worst a relic.

Rye survived the remainder of the 20th century through companies like Jim Beam, which produced its own Rye and even purchased Old Overholt in 1987. Now Rye is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and old and new brands share space on the liquor store shelf. Sazerak, Templeton, Old Overholt, Wild Turkey Green Label, and Jim Beam Yellow Label sit side by side and offer a generous range of whiskey experiences.

Old Overholt still bears a label our afore-mentioned buddy Doc would quickly recognize, though whether the flavor resembles its original Monongahela style is unclear. Still, it offers a light-handed and subtle taste of how fermented rye differs from the sourness of fermented corn.

For that comparison, though, maybe Beam Yellow serves us best. Being made by the bourbon people, it's a sharp taste of what happened when distillers changed their grain bill. It can be harsh for someone used to smooth and sour bourbons, but rewarding if your tongue will allow it past your tonsils.

Templeton is a brand that has taken a strange journey to the 21st century. It's been a registered corporation since 1965, but they recently switched to an older recipe dating back to the company's... less than legal days. Whether or not that story is true, and regardless of the old recipe's resemblance to Pennsylvania Rye, the quality of the product can't be denied. The bouquet demands careful attention; and its sweet, light, and fruity flavor belies its brute alcoholic power.

The most complex flavor composition of this bunch, however, belongs to Sazerac. Though it probably bears little resemblance to the Monongahela spirits the late 18th century, that in no way necessitates a lack of quality. In fact, as far as flavor goes, it shines above all other brands on the market now, offering the full-on kick to the teeth of Rye, with a fruity middle and a cinnamon finish. Perfectly suited for either sipping or shooting, the price is the only thing that makes it not optimal for heavy imbibing.

That title has to be taken by Wild Turkey Green. From the makers of the quintessential finish to a bad day (and start of a bad night) comes high-octane rye whiskey with a Southern accent. Sure, I could scrutinize its forceful Rye bouquet, or the wonderful afterglow that stays in your mouth after the initial burn fades; but the long and shot is it tastes fantastic and will fuck your shit up in a hurry, which for me exemplifies everything that is pure and wonderful about distilled spirits.

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