Re: RARA-AVIS: Whatever happened to rye?

From: Jeff Vorzimmer (
Date: 10 Oct 2007

> I thought I'd try some, and there doesn't appear to be much available
> right now. Just some by Jim Beam, which is hardly the bottom-shelf
> stuff most hardboiled characters seem to swill by the bucketful. In
> all the stuff I'm reading now, it's the ultimate working stiff's
> drink, but now it appears to be something of a curiosity.

Rye got eclipsed by bourbon as the American whisky of choice. I still drink it. Down here in Texas we get Old Overholt, which is a brand that's mentioned in hardboiled crime fiction. Actually rye is making a bit of a comeback down here with the resurgence in popularity of the Sazerac cocktail at local joints such as Opal Divine's.

Rye is a bit smoother than bourbon. In Cain's Mildred Pierce (a masterpiece of American literature, I'd like to add), it's implied that it's more of a woman's whisky. Mind you, we're talking about 1933-34 (the timeframe of that book). By the forties, rye was easily the most consumed whisky in America. By the mid-fifties, it was considered more of an old-timers/skid-row bum drink. The mention of rye whisky in a lot of country and western songs of the late 40s and 50s, most notably Tex Ritter's Rye Whisky, didn't help its image among the cosmopolitan set.

There were two other factors that contributed to the decline of both rye and gin in the early 60s--they were Frank Sinatra, James Bond and the Cold War. Frank Sinatra's very well-known preference for bourbon and specifically Jack Daniels went a long way to increasing the popularity of bourbon over rye. Bourbon, unjustly, was considered more sophisticated than rye.

And James Bond's preference for vodka martini's contributed to the decline in gin consumption. With renewed respect for the Russian's (read Sputnik) and some great Madison Avenue marketing campaigns came a boom in vodka consumption. Some social historians say that Bond's consumption of vodka martini's was the earliest example of product placement in the movies; bought and paid for by Smirnoff Vodka.


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