Tuesday, August 23, 2022

What Do 'High Rye' and 'Low Rye' Mean?

To be called bourbon it must be at least 51% corn. The rest may be any grain.

"What does the industry mean when they say 'high' or 'low' rye bourbon?"

It is a common question, often misunderstood.

First, this is rye-recipe bourbon we are talking about, not rye whiskey, which must be at least 51% rye and can be 100% rye.

Second, 'high rye' and 'low rye' are terms used more by enthusiasts than producers. Four Roses is one of the few major producers to use the terms, although they typically characterize their two bourbon mash bills as 'standard' and 'high,' because both have more rye than most standard bourbons. The two mash bills at Four Roses are 20% and 35% rye, respectively. In the rest of the industry, 12% to 15% rye is standard for most rye-recipe bourbons.

Buffalo Trace, which also makes two rye-recipe bourbon mash bills, explicitly rejects the high/low terminology. They won't reveal their exact mash bills, but #1 is probably around 8% rye, while #2 is nearer to the 12% to 15% standard. That means the Sazerac-owned brands made at Buffalo Trace, such as Eagle Rare, Benchmark, and Buffalo Trace itself are all low rye bourbons. The recipe seems to go back to when Schenley owned the place as well as Bernheim in Louisville. Old Charter, I. W. Harper, and other Schenley bourbons made at Bernheim (and occasionally at what is now Buffalo Trace) used that 8% rye recipe, just like Schenley's George Dickel, which copied it from Jack Daniel's.  

Bulleit is one of the few producers that boasts about the rye content of its bourbon. They use the Four Roses 35% rye mash bill. Old Grand-Dad/Basil Hayden, made by Beam Suntory, is the other true 'high rye' mash bill from a major producer, at about 30%. Their other recipe, the one used for Jim Beam and most of their other bourbons, is about 15% rye.

At Brown-Forman, the Woodford/Old Forester recipe is 18% rye, so their two recipes are 'standard' and 'low,' like Buffalo Trace. 

Around the rest of the majors, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and the other Heaven Hill rye-recipe bourbons are all in the standard range. Same for Wild Turkey/Russell's Reserve and most other major brands. 

Third, since there is no industry standard for these terms, producers are free to use whatever term they think will stimulate sales. Some play fast and loose. Logically, since a bourbon recipe must be at least 51% corn and most contain at least 5% malt, the maximum amount of 'something else' possible is 44%. A reasonable understanding of the terms might be: 1-10% = 'low,' 11-20% = 'standard,' and 21-44% = 'high.' 

Someone could use enzymes instead of malt and make a bourbon that is 51% corn and 49% rye, and now someone probably will.

There is a fourth rye-content category, of course: 'zero.' That usually means wheated bourbons such as Maker's Mark, Larceny, and Weller, but there are bourbons that are 100% corn. Wait, isn't anything 80% corn or above corn whiskey? Not exactly. If an 80-100% corn mash bill whiskey is unaged or aged in used barrels, it is corn whiskey. If it is aged in new, charred oak barrels, it is bourbon, even if it is 100% corn and contains no small grains.

So if someone pitches you what they call a 'high rye' bourbon, ask for the actual mash bill.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Guess Who Was an International Theater Authority?

In June 2008, the second year of this blog, I wrote a post about Chicago theater based on a performance I had attended the night before, and on an article that day in the Chicago Tribune.

As it happened, the artistic director of the theater company that put on that performance was searching for such things, discovered my post, and quoted, favorably, part of what I wrote in his blog. The weird part is, he discovered it on the web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper. It was a link in the Theater Blog of Chris Wilkinson that used me as a source for the claim that Chicago has eclipsed New York as America's primary city for legitimate theater.

For the record, I am in no way an authority on international theater, Chicago theater, or any other theater. I enjoy live theater and live in a great place for it, so occasionally I am moved to write something.

About all I can say to support my claim about Chicago is that it was said to me by Allan Havis, an old college buddy who said it 30+ years ago, when we were attending a Steppenwolf performance together. Even though he found that night's offering a bit flaccid, he said Chicago had a more vital and important theater community than New York. 

Allan has a bit more standing on the subject than I do, as an internationally-acclaimed playwright, theater scholar, and native New Yorker. We had a good laugh. (See comments, below.)

Friday, August 12, 2022

Was the Edith Farnsworth House a Commie Plot?

The Edith Farnsworth House.
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951,
on the Fox River just outside Plano, Illinois.
The Edith Farnsworth House is one of the most significant buildings of the 20th century. It is one of the jewels of the Chicago area and not to be missed.

Even before it was built, some people hated the house, and not on aesthetic grounds. They considered it subversive. In short, communist. They believed the design dictum "less is more," as embodied by this modernist masterpiece, was a communist plot to condition people to accept the lowest-common-denominator leveling that was inevitable in a forced egalitarian society. 

It didn't seem to matter that Edith Farnsworth was a wealthy physician who commissioned the house as a weekend retreat. We could all stand such leveling.

One of the harshest critics was Elizabeth Gordon, editor of House Beautiful. In 1953, she edited a forward-looking issue of the magazine that included an essay, "The Threat to the Next America," in which she explained her theories about the subversive agenda of modernism advocates. 

Some quotes: 

"They are trying to convince you that you can appreciate beauty only if you suffer – because they say beauty and comfort are incompatible." 

"They are a self-chosen elite who are trying to tell us what we should like and how we should live." 

"For if we can be sold on accepting dictators in matters of taste and how our homes are to be ordered, our minds are certainly well prepared to accept dictators in other departments of life." 

"Break people’s confidence in reason and their own common sense and they are on the way to attaching themselves to a leader, a mass movement, or any sort of authority beyond themselves." 

All this because Edith Farnsworth complained to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe because the house didn't have any closets. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The 1980s, When Bourbon Hit Rock Bottom


As I recount in the new issue of Bourbon+, the 1980s were the worst of times for American whiskey. Sales were off by half, from a high-water mark more than a decade in the past. Producers at first believed the decline would be temporary, a hiccup. It had to be.

But it wasn't.

That is the subject of my "Back In The Day" column in the Summer issue of Bourbon+ Magazine

Part of it is the story of how Buffalo Trace became the distillery it is today. You can read about it here.

I have been on the last page of Bourbon+ with my musings on American whiskey history in every issue published so far, since the beginning. 

The idea of this sample, naturally, is for you to subscribe, which I recommend. Bourbon+ covers American whiskey and everything around it like no one else. It is a beautiful magazine with good writing that goes nicely with a little red likker.