The spirit of the season: rye whisky

Over the break, I had the pleasure of testing out Crown Royal’s new and highly sought-after spirit: their Northern Harvest Rye. Ever since whisky writer Jim Murray boldly declared it the “best whisky in the world,” this sharp and rye-dominated whisky has eluded many a curious taster as its small supply has dwindled at the hands of pre-emptive cabinet-stockers. My theory: Crown Royal diehards were lucky enough to be the first to notice this superior gem and snatched up a large portion for themselves.

As Canadian whisky goes, it’s not a bad dram. Excellent as a mixer, on its own or on the rocks, this versatile spirit warms the belly with its enticing flavours of apricot, apple pie and vanilla that mingle nicely with its dry, woody spiciness. For a distiller famous for its mediocrity, the Northern Harvest Rye is a substantial improvement on an admittedly classic Canadian spirit. Yet, try as I might, I cannot understand why Mr. Murray would crown this whisky with such a lofty title; clearly he has never tried Alberta Premium’s Dark Horse or the esteemed Lot No. 40, not to mention the plethora of excellent, affordable bottles hailing from our neighbors to the south, across the pond or in east Asia.

Nevertheless, the intense rye flavours of this type of whisky are perfect for constructing a classic American cocktail: the Sazerac. While some bartenders aggressively maintain that the modern Sazerac should contain cognac or bourbon whiskey, this historical New Orleans drink was likely first made with the rye-based spirit that is now a Canadian staple. To make your own, first swirl ice and a bit of absinthe or Pernod in a rocks glass to coat it with a light layer of liquorice afterburn. After straining out the liqueur, shake two measures of straight rye whisky with a quarter measure of dark sugar syrup – maple syrup is also delicious here – and a few dashes of angostura and strain into the glass. Top it all off with a strip of orange zest and enjoy this hearty concoction from the dawn of the modern cocktail.

If this isn’t your style, try making a Brooklyn, the underappreciated, rye-infused sibling of the classic Manhattan. Shake together an ounce and a half of straight rye whisky with a half-ounce each of sweet and dry vermouths, optionally topped off with a bit of maraschino liqueur to balance the sharpness of the whisky. As with all cocktails named after New York boroughs, feel free to adjust the vermouth levels to suit your palate. Those looking for a drier cocktail should add a touch more bianco, while those with a sweet tooth should favour the rosso.

When all else fails, rye pairs perfectly with ginger ale and a lemon wedge, or in the beloved whisky sour: a mix of rye whisky, the juice of one lemon or lime, a bit of sugar and an egg white (that last one might sound gross, but it gives the drink a satisfying fluffy texture). While it’s basically glorified lemonade with alcohol, this drink might at least help trick yourself into thinking you’re actually meeting your 2016 health goals.

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