Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ultra-Premium Rye, an Oxymoron?

A couple of weeks ago I was in the liquor store, when I by chance came a cross a bottle of (ri)1 (pronounced rye one) Ultra-Premium Rye Whiskey. The very first thing I said to myself was "oh God, no." I don't know why. I love rye whiskey. In fact, the other thing that popped in my head was "you bastards stole our idea." You see, my friends and I have always though that starting our own Pennsylvania Rye distillery would be a kick-ass idea. And nobody makes a Pennsylvania rye anymore (the secrets out, damnit!).

I Guess seeing this new whiskey on the shelf bothered me for two reasons. One, I don't care for the phrase "ultra-premium" attached to anything I drink. I usually find the product to be of slightly above average quality, and highly above average in price. It's a buzz word that has no meaning, unless you've got the balls to back it up. I've seen many ultra-premium liquors fall short of their namesake. Second, I just don't see the words "ultra-premium" and "rye" going together. They just don't fit with my image of what rye is supposed to be.

Let's first skip past Canadian whiskey, which is often called rye whiskey for some reason, but usually has no rye in it at all. When it does, it usually accounts for a small amount of the blend. Rye whiskey came out of the foothills of the Appalachians in rural Western Pennsylvania. It was the drink of the common man when rum fell from grace after the American Revolution. Rye was the only distilled spirit that was born 100% from American sweat and labor. Rum relied heavily on molasses imports from the West Indies, and gin usually was made with spices from around the globe. Both were also distilled primarily in the urban coastal cities. Rye on the other had was a hard drink, made by hard men, who just wanted to supplement their income with their excess grain. It was harsh and peppery. A bold drink. America's fire water.

Rye was the only real whiskey anybody drank prior to prohibition. Bourbon? Barely anybody touched the stuff. It existed, but wasn't really popular until after prohibition. When you watch an old western on TV and somebody orders whiskey, they were ordering rye. Rye has this grittiness to it, this classic mystique of the old days, the harder days. Rye is dirty. Rye burns the throat, and hard men drink it. There is nothing ultra-premium about rye.

I looked at the elegantly tapered bottle on the shelf before me. I take note of its clean simple label. This wasn't rye that I was looking it. In my eyes, it was a gimmick. What right did it have to come out of nowhere, and just declare itself champion over all other ryes, without being tested in the fires.

It wasn't until just recently that I discovered that (ri)1 is actually made by Jim Beam. I suppose that offers some merit to it. I definitely will have to try it. But is it really worth $50 a bottle. This shit is expensive. Being a lover of rye whiskey, I am definitely taking a biased stance on this one. I love Jim Beam, and I hope that this whiskey is spectacular, but their marketing campaign and image for this one just doesn't sit right with me. I don't think it ever will. Rye doesn't belong in a fancy bottle with all the top shelf booze. It belongs buried in the back, and when the bartender takes it out to serve a lone, grizzled, old man, sitting in a dark corner of the bar, fingerprints can be seen in the dust that has collected on the bottle.


  1. I thought the same thing when I saw it in the liquor store. It's just lacking that rough-and-tumble image that rye has. And other ultra-premium Beam products don't go down that road with their packaging; they proudly let you know that you're buying a bottle of bourbon, and connote all that history in the packaging.

    But I guess that's the point of this product. Bourbon is still popular, rye is not. So they need to find a consumer base. Someone might be disinclined to buy a bottle of something that brags about how it will kick you in the teeth when you drink it.

    But rye DOES kick you in the teeth when you drink it! Someone who buys it expecting low-flavor and smoothness might be pissed off when they get it home and try some.

    I'll still have to try some eventually. Maybe you, me, and McPaddy can split a bottle some night.

  2. For my next installment "Captain Morgan Long Island Iced Tea! WTF has the Captain been smok'n?"