Like my dear, esteemed colleague Ted Asregadoo, I’m fond of liquor, particularly the hard stuff. Unlike Ted, I tend to approach my drinking with a “seasons” philosophy; although bourbon is my favorite drink, I only buy it in the fall and winter, when its punchy warmth feels right against the frost and harsh winds of six more months under the New Hampshire snow. When the ice melts and the landscape turns green again, I’m into tonic drinks and beer, dropping slices of lime in my vodka (and cucumber in my gin) as I swat away the bugs and count down the days until autumn.
I’m also something of a liquor loyalist — partly because I love the stuff, and partly because I “earned” a free bottle cradle during one of the brand’s anniversaries, I’m a Knob Creek man. I buy a big-ass bottle when fall sets in, drop it in the cradle on my kitchen counter, and refill as necessary. For this reason — and because I live in the land of state-run liquor stores, where BevMo is a distant, shining beacon of boozy choice — I wasn’t sure I’d be up for joining Ted on Bourbon Street this year. In the end, though, temptation won out, and even though I still have a couple inches of Knob Creek left in fall’s first bottle, I headed out to my local liquor outlet last week and took a gamble on a container of (rī)1, a newish brand of rye whiskey.
You might be saying — as the niggling Ted did — that rye isn’t bourbon, and shouldn’t be allowed in a series called Bourbon Street, but as the sheriff of this little burg, I make the laws. And anyway, rye and bourbon are linked, both as close liquor cousins and by history — many of the classic bourbon drinks were made with rye before Prohibition, and though it’s not as popular as it used to be, rye is a distinctly Northeastern drink; since I live in a distinctly Northeastern area, I figured (rī)1 would be just about perfect for my first trip down Bourbon(ish) Street.
The first thing that stands out about (rī)1 is its packaging. This isn’t really true for smaller labels, but most of the larger bourbons tend to ship in somewhat boxy bottles, which is supposed to reflect, I guess, the manly, no-nonsense character of the liquor. (rī)1, while still displaying a hint of the hard angles common to brands like Knob Creek, comes in a tall, slender, striking bottle — it looks more like flavored after-dinner liqueur than something you should be drinking on a screen porch while you puff a corn cob pipe. It also comes with a little collection of (rī)1 flash cards proclaiming the “ultrapremium” virtues of the brand and saying things like “If you have a taste for the finer things, there’s finally a spirit worthy of your glass,” all of which is how Jim Beam intends to trick people into spending $48 on a bottle of rye.
I didn’t find out (rī)1 was a Jim Beam liquor until I got home, which I admit pissed me off a little; it’s one thing for an independent bottler to cynically use slick packaging to try and evoke the suavely rugged manliness of a classic drink, but another for Jim Beam to get together with one of its focus groups and decide it’s time to make rye hip again. Still, it wasn’t like I was about to return the stuff, so I waited until 5 o’clock, uncorked the bottle, and dove in.
If you’ve never had rye, it bears mentioning going in that, as a general rule, it doesn’t have the slight sweetness or complex flavor that bourbon boasts; like the Northeast itself, it’s kind of grumpy, with a flavor that suggests it doesn’t really care whether or not you like it — and if you don’t, that’s your problem. True to form, (rī)1 is a pretty forceful whiskey — 92 proof — with a flavor whose overwhelming taste component is pepper. Other writers have suggested hints of cinnamon, which I guess I can go along with, but don’t go thinking (rī)1 tastes like a stick of Big Red; it’s a spicy drink, but without much of the sweetness you’d expect from reading the word “cinnamon.” This isn’t a bad thing, mind you; befitting the clean, minimalist design of its packaging, (rī)1 has a bright, clean taste, and if you can bring yourself to use a $48 bottle of anything for a mixed drink, you’ll find that it does a fine job of blending with everything — you can use it to mix anything from a Manhattan to a hot toddy without worrying about the other components of the drink.
Is it worth almost fifty bones? Assuredly not. I’ve been enjoying a straight shot of (rī)1 every night for almost a week, and it makes for a good, strong sipping drink, but I do miss the layered flavor of my favorite bourbon — and seeing as how I can get nearly two liters of Knob Creek for the same price of a 750 mL bottle of (rī)1, I can’t see myself buying it again. Pick it up on sale, maybe, if you’re looking for a switch from your Russell’s Reserve, or you’ve got a trend-conscious liquor connoisseur in your life who’s earned a gift. Otherwise, there’s no real reason not to stick with the cheaper stuff.