In The Spirit
Good Ol’ Rittenhouse
Rye whiskey that was love at first sip
By Tony Cross
Anyone in the bar business is well aware of Rittenhouse Rye. It is, without a doubt, the best bang for your buck mixing rye whiskey on the market. Rittenhouse’s popularity comes with a price (and not attached to a dollar sign); it’s hard to find. Granted, it’s currently sitting on the shelf of the closest ABC to me. The question is: For how long? If you’re a fan of anything from old-fashioneds to Sazeracs, drop what you’re doing and call your local ABC right away and have them hold a bottle for you. Chances are, they’re already sold out.
I became familiar with Rittenhouse almost a decade ago when I first dived into the world of making drinks. A couple of recipes from well-known bartenders called for Rittenhouse when a rye was needed. Our ABC wasn’t carrying it at the time, and never had. The only way for me to get my hands on it was by ordering a case. I was managing a restaurant at the time, and had just become the main bartender. A case of rye that I never had before was a little risky, especially with a $360 price tag. Luckily for me, it was love at first sip, and before I knew it, that first case was almost gone! It was a few cases later when my local ABC hub informed me that they were going to stock the rye. The combination of my case orders and myriad customers (that frequented my bar) requesting the whiskey seemed to get the ball rolling. Not that I’m responsible for Rittenhouse having a (semi) permanent spot on my local store’s shelf . . . I’m just saying.
Rittenhouse Rye was founded in 1934 in Philadelphia, and was started after Prohibition ended in December 1933. It was named after the American astronomer, mathematician, inventor (and on, and on), David Rittenhouse. Originally titled “Rittenhouse Square Rye,” it was named after one of William Penn’s squares in Philly that was originally called “Southwest Square” but later renamed “Rittenhouse Square” as a tribute to David. It is currently produced in Kentucky by Heaven Hill Distillery.
Rittenhouse is a bonded rye; you’ll see “Bottled in Bond” on the label. At the end of the 19th century, there were a lot of distillers popping up everywhere that were selling, well, crap hooch. Bankers and other higher-ups with money started lobbying Congress; they wanted a law that guaranteed that their spirit was of high quality. Thus, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was born. Whiskey from there on out was to come from one distillery during one distilling season, and had to be aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof. I’m sure that most politicians sent this bill through quickly for personal reasons as well. Not complaining. The tradition continues, as every bottle of Rittenhouse is bottled in bond.
Today, we are lucky to have a huge selection of rye whiskeys to choose from. Even if our local ABC store doesn’t have a great offering, you can always explore other state’s liquor stores, and/or shop online. With that being said, you can never go wrong with Rittenhouse. It’s great neat, on the rocks, or in classic cocktails.
Personally, I’ve always gravitated toward rye whiskies when it came time to make most whiskey forward cocktails. The first proper cocktail I ever made was a Manhattan. When I was behind the stick, no matter what time of year, I always had a Manhattan on my menu. And it was made with Rittenhouse. It’s spicy, but not over-the-top. It’s got a touch of sweetness, but nothing compared to a bourbon. It’s the best. There are other ryes that I love, but Rittenhouse will always be a staple in my bar.
When I was sitting on my first case of Rittenhouse, I had at least three or four cocktails on my menu with rye. I was trying to get our guests to give classic cocktails with whiskey a shot. This was at a time when neon-colored drinks were popular and every other menu had “tini” printed on it with vodka as the spirit. I wanted people to understand why classics are just that. Rittenhouse helped, from our Sazeracs to our sours. “I never liked whiskey drinks, but this one is delicious!” was starting to become common buzz. If memory serves, we added a New York Sour to the menu the first fall that I was behind the bar. Off the bat, it was aesthetically appealing, which usually got a group of our guests talking when someone from the table ordered it. After sharing a few sips, more orders would follow suit.
New York Sour
2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup (2:1)
1 egg white (optional)
1/2 ounce red wine (I used malbec)
Lemon peel to garnish
Combine rye, lemon juice, simple syrup (and egg white if you choose) into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake hard for 10 seconds (longer with egg whites) and strain into a rocks glass with ice. Using the back of a bar spoon, slowly float the red wine atop the cocktail. Garnish with a swath of lemon peel. PS
Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.