Talking With Rye Master Jimmy Russell

About 10 years ago, I had my first Manhattan, thanks to my friend Laura. She ordered one, with Maker's Mark bourbon whiskey, "a little bit sweet." So that's how I ordered mine. It was delicious, of course, and over time, it became my signature winter drink, except I tailored it to be "not too sweet."

I can't count the number of times I've sent back a Manhattan over those last 10 years because it was too sweet. Bartenders over the years have tried to help remedy the problem, not necessarily with perfect results. (One suggested making my Manhattan "perfect," using half dry vermouth and half sweet vermouth. It didn't taste right somehow.)

Finally, recently, a bartender saved me from myself. At NYC's Union Square Café, I asked for my regular, a Maker's Mark Manhattan, not too sweet. He said, "Have you ever tried it with rye?" I admitted I hadn't. "Rye whiskey is less sweet than traditional Irish whiskey—and what Manhattans were traditionally made with." I gave it a whirl. The Union Square Café Manhattan was made with Michter's Single-Barrel Rye Whiskey, which, on the range of liquors, is fairly top-shelf (it retails for about $40 in liquor stores). It was perfect. A little spicy, a little sweet. I was converted.

Now I only order my Manhattans made with rye, but little did I know, there's a whole world of rye whiskeys out there. I enlisted the help of a professional, Jimmy Russell, a master rye distiller who created Wild Turkey Rye nearly six decades ago, and more recently created Russell Reserve Rye, a small-batch whiskey, out of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

What is rye, and how exactly does it differ from bourbon?

Rye was the first whiskey made in America. Rye was the grain. When [production] got to Kentucky, it switched to corn, to make bourbon and whiskey. Rye has to be at least 51% rye, it has to be the majority grain. Bourbon has to be at least 51% corn.

How long have you been distilling whiskey?

I started in 1954. It'll be 57 years in September, when Wild Turkey was founded. To me it's not work. I have my son, Eddie, working with me, and he's been with me for 31 years. We've been in the biz for a long, long time.

What are the best uses for rye?

It's best in cocktails. It's more spicy, more peppery, more earthy... and not as sweet as bourbon. It's what they've always used in cocktails: Manhattans, Old-fashioneds. It's made a big comeback recently with the young people and the mixologists.

Can you give me your favorite rye recipe?

A Manhattan is excellent, but I like a bourbon sour. It's got citrus flavors and to me, it's an excellent hot weather drink. I'm not even sure of the ingredients!

Like your drinks made with rye or bourbon? Let us know in the comments.