It's probably not a great sign when you need to begin an evening of rye-tasting by Googling "rye." Or when your partner in crime, so serious a whiskey-drinker that he owns his own aging casks, admits he's nearly as clueless as you are when it comes to this particular variety.
That's the thing about rye, though: Despite the fact that it's only nominally different from better-known whiskies like bourbon and scotch, it can often feel completely foreign, an unfamiliar (and thoroughly un-hip) relic of some sepia-colored past. By far the most popular whiskey in the country around the turn of the century, rye — made, like other whiskies, from a fermented mash of grain; though in its case, that mash is composed of at least 51 percent rye — was more or less killed by Prohibition. While other whiskies managed to rebound after alcohol was legalized, rye never really regained its status. A couple years ago, however, it began to enjoy a new renaissance, likely as the result of the runaway popularity of Mad Men and its main character's signature cocktail, the Manhattan, typically made with rye. Still, American rye occupies something of a secondary status to Canadian rye, a sweeter, simpler liquor that often contains no rye grain at all. But in the Bay Area, when it comes to true American rye, anything beyond Wild Turkey rye remains stubbornly hard to find by the glass, meaning even the most ardent whiskey fans are woefully underexposed to it. So thank god for Wikipedia, and for places like Acme Bar (2115 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley), which offers among its hundred-plus whiskeys a broad selection of ryes, available both by the glass and in a pair of three-glass flights.
We started with the cheap sampler ($9). Rye tends to be spicier and sharper than bourbon, and on the low end, this can be startling, especially to people used to drinking milder whiskeys. Indeed, the Wild Turkey had a molasses-like flavor that leapt out quickly and left little behind in the way of an aftertaste; the Redemption was blunt and banana-y; and we found the Willet vaguely lemony and lip-tinglingly acidic. But once we moved on to the higher-end flight ($18), that spiciness gave way to a complex, smooth-but-not-too-sweet flavor unlike damn near any other kind of whiskey we'd ever had. The High West 21-year, aged in old oak and made of 53 percent rye grain, was smoky and ever-so-slightly starchy (in a good way). Meanwhile, the 22-year Hirsch, a Kentucky rye, was the darkest of all six and easily the most interesting brand we tried all night. Steven sensed maple syrup and vanilla, while I picked up preserved orange peel; altogether, though, the flavor was a bit bolder than what we rye virgins were ready for. But by far the best was the ten-year Michter's, also from Kentucky: oaty, oaky, cinnamony and slightly peaty, with a burn at the bottom of the throat and a flavor that balanced, brilliantly, on the edge of sweet without ever quite getting there. Consider us converts.