Over the past decade we’ve become so enamored of all foods local and regional that questions of national culinary identity seem to have faded into the background. Even if, as Sidney Mintz contends, the idea of a national cuisine is pure artifice, we still have foods that hold symbolic meaning. Roland Barthes argued for frites as the culinary sign of Frenchness. What might the American counterpart be? Because I am writing this letter at the Fourth of July, that most patriotic of American holidays, I’m wondering whether there really is anything “as American as apple pie.” That idiom has always seemed to me disingenuous, since there’s nothing distinctively American about apple pie unless you relate it to the story of Johnny Appleseed. But if we set aside our need for national legends, then perhaps there’s another source of sustenance we could turn to for our national symbol. I have in mind rye whiskey.
Here I must confess that (unlike my husband) I am not a born whiskey lover. In Scotland I valiantly traversed the single-malt circuit, ever hopeful that I’d learn to love peat. But no appreciation of artistry could win over my palate. That is, until I met rye whiskey. Who knew whiskey could be simultaneously so peppery and so sweet? Of course, whiskey is no more an American invention than apple pie, but rye comes close. Early American distillers favored rye for its heartiness in the severe New England climate as well as for the deep flavor it imparts. Rye whiskey became popular among all classes and regions throughout the United States.
Then Prohibition came. A lively moonshine business for corn-based bourbon grew up in the Appalachians and across the South, but rye whiskey was smuggled from Canada rather than produced stateside as hootch. Like most Americans, I grew up thinking that rye whiskey was a Canadian specialty. And then, a few years ago, I tasted Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye Whiskey at a bar in (where else?) Manhattan. Not in a classic Manhattan cocktail with sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters, but straight up, the way I like vodka. And I was smitten.
What better way to celebrate Independence Day than with a distilled taste of early America? So my husband and I hopped in the car and headed south to Tuthilltown, the first craft distillery in New York State to produce spirits since Prohibition. There we took sickles in hand and began slashing our way through waist-high fields of grain, wielding the blade away from our legs and cutting the stalks with a precise chopping motion, not the clean slice I’d always imagined. We gathered the stalks into large bundles that we tidied with our feet before tying them into shocks with a handful of long stalks. This grain would be fermented and used for the next season’s bottling—a literal distillation of the sweat of our brows.
Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee founded Tuthilltown Distillery in 2001 on the site of an old gristmill, planting acres of rye in the fields surrounding the distillery. They ground their first harvest in an antiquated grain mill. Even though they’ve moved on to more sophisticated equipment, Tuthilltown spirits are still produced in small batches by hand, distilled in pot stills rather than the continuous stills favored by large operations. None of the several whiskeys the distillery makes are charcoal filtered, so their earthy quality is more fully retained.
Tuthilltown’s story is as deeply American as their product: the little guy struggling against corporate culture and governmental bureaucracy. Ralph spent three years lobbying the New York State legislature before it agreed to create a new agricultural license that would allow spirits to be sold at the distillery, as wine is at wineries or beers at microbreweries. However, this little craft distillery, which produces only five thousand gallons of spirits a year, has to pay the same federal excise taxes as the big guys do: a whopping twenty-seven dollars on the gallon, adding 27 percent to Tuthilltown’s production costs. Ralph Erenzo is now lobbying the legislature to give small-scale distillers the same kind of tax breaks that microbreweries and small wineries enjoy. He wants lawmakers to recognize and help support the people who are trying to revive an important part of America’s cultural patrimony.
As for me, I was more than happy to help in this American revival as I rhythmically cut through the rye. After harvesting a good swath, I returned to the distillery and breathed in the rich smell of fermenting grain. I then took a well-earned sip of the finished product, made even sweeter by my labors. And I finally understood that old American song:
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey,
Rye whiskey, I cry,
If I don’t get rye whiskey,
I surely will die.