In a rye mood


It seems most appropriate to select an American-made wine when celebrating Independence Day. The holiday also gives us another opportunity to acknowledge one of the country’s finest winemakers, who also happens to limit his production to kosher wines. Ernie Weir, the founder and winemaker of Napa’s Hagafen Winery, has for years created notable wines that have won numerous awards, including competitions against nonkosher contenders. His wines are another compelling argument against a “kosher wine” shelf since consumers deserve to be exposed to wines of this quality. They should sit next to similar varietals and not be relegated to an unused corner of the store. And observant customers will either be shopping at a store that only has kosher wines or will look for a hechsher no matter where the bottle is displayed.

Having again made our case to liberate kosher wines from the tyranny of display prejudice, we can focus on a wine for the summer holiday. An obvious choice from the many fine wines in its portfolio is the Hagafen Napa Valley Syrah 2009. Ideal with grilled steaks or burgers, this dark beauty begins with earthy cherry and black fruit aromas that expand nicely in the glass along with notes of spice, leather and chocolate.

The family-owned and -operated Hagafen winery is located on Napa’s Silverado Trail between the Oak Knoll and Stag’s Leap appellations and boasts a very popular tasting room. Each of Hagafen’s three wine labels, Hagafen (the primary label), Prix (their high-end line) and Don Ernesto (their quaffable line) are available there. While Hagafen wines are widely available, the winery also offers direct-to-consumer sales via their website, as well as two fantastic wine clubs (one of us greatly enjoys both clubs). All Hagafen wines are certified kosher and mevushal under the supervision of the Orthodox Union (OU) — yet the wines never seem to suffer any noticeable adverse effects from the mevushal process (a thermal processing akin to flash pasteurization).

Spirits-wise, in the spirit of the Fourth of July celebration, we thought we’d once again delve into American whiskey.

Most Americans celebrate Independence Day with barbecues, picnics, parades, fireworks, hanging out at the beach or just vegging in front of the television — all of which is more or less traditionally appropriate. The only component of our collective Independence Day celebrations that seems to have lost some of the deserved national focus and appreciation for its historical importance is the booze. Sure, we have beer and wine at our July 4 shindigs, but our nation’s ancestors would get thoroughly pickled at such affairs.

According to historian William Rorabaugh, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Washington in Seattle, communal binge drinking was so customary at July 4 festivities, that “it was surely no accident that one early temperance society adopted a pledge that allowed its members to become intoxicated on Independence Day.” In fact, Rorabaugh writes in his classic text, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, “during the 1820s no holiday had more import than the 4th of July,” a date that would evoke “a national intoxication.”

Apparently, Americans drank more alcoholic beverages between 1790 and 1840 than at any other period in our nation’s history — nearly a half pint of hard liquor per man each day.

So what were Americans drinking back then? Well before the American Revolution, it was mostly madeira, hard apple cider, apple brandy, rum and really anything they could get their hands on to distill that wasn’t otherwise being taxed too greatly by the British. The demand for whiskey increased as supplies of rum ran dry during the American Revolution. After the revolution, however, the tipple of choice was largely rye whiskey — it was both cheap and plentiful, and American!

Back at the time of our nation’s founding, whiskey and other distilled spirits were seen as staple foods to shake up an otherwise bland diet. Think of it as rye bread versus white bread. Whiskey was also thought to be curative, healing colds, fevers, and a palliative for aches well into the 19th century. At that time, most sources of water were neither clear nor sparkling, nor in any way appetizing.

It is all too often forgotten that until Prohibition, America had a proud tradition in its domestic rye whiskey industry, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania. There has been a certain recrudescence of the rye trade, and many new brands have been introduced. But straight rye whiskey is still a vastly underappreciated spirit if actual sales are anything to go by.

Sure Bourbon, since 1964’s congressional resolution, has been “officially” America’s “Native Spirit” and so folks might think it the better distilled spirit for this occasion. But as with most congressional proclamations, our own, perhaps too infrequently tapped, “don’t tread on me” American instinct can’t resist a little iconoclasm. Don’t misunderstand — we love Bourbon, but no plutocratic fat-cats will tell us what to drink when celebrating our national independence.

All of which is to say that straight rye whiskey, the tipple of our nation’s hearty, freedom-loving forebears, should be accorded at least a modicum of respect and is certainly worth at least a sample taste.

Last week, some of you may recall, we reviewed a great, young, local rye. For those who missed that, here it is again: Catoctin Creek Organic Roundstone Rye Whisky (40 percent abv; $38; certified organic and kosher under the Star-K): Lovely, brash and oily, with aromas and flavors of spicy rye, dried walnuts, vanilla, sliced banana, caramel, butterscotch and oak. Water adds to the creaminess, but detracts from the complexity. Additional maturation will likely improve future expressions of this already fine, clean, vibrant rye whisky. Yum.

For those seeking a fine, inexpensive, slightly more aged rye, consider:  Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Rye (45 percent abv; $25): This warming, super smooth, fun, light-ish yet wonderful rye offers aromas and flavors of almonds, caramel, honey, vanilla, oak, cherries(!?), banana bread, racy/spicy cinnamon, and N.Y. rye bread. Mild mannered as rye whiskies go, but just superb.

Finally, for those wanting something new, and to cast an eye towards the rum that used to slake this nation’s pre-independence thirst, consider this Caribbean Rum-cask finished rye whiskey:

Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey (50 percent abv; $70): How on earth master distiller Lincoln Henderson came up with this seemingly bizarre process formula for this Angel’s Envy Rye is absolutely beyond us; on several levels this ought not to work, yet it does — brilliantly! First he sourced rye whisky (distilled from a mash bill of 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley and matured for at least six years in American oak barrels) from Midwest Grain Products (formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana). He then subjected this mature whiskey to (up to) 18 months of finishing in French Oak casks that were previously used to finish Plantation XO 20th Anniversary Barbados Rum for 18 to 24 months (and before that, to mature Pierre Ferrand Cognac). The net result, surprisingly, is a sweetish whiskey with vibrant, spicy rye notes (cinnamon and mint), weirdly tamed yet not smothered by rich maple syrup, and exhibiting additional aromas and flavors of graham crackers, gingerbread, creamy vanilla, nutty toffee, some gentle tropical fruit and golden raisins. The medium-length finish offers more rum than rye notes, but the interplay throughout just works. The price leaves something to be desired, but is (sadly) not outrageous as these things go. Unusual, on several levels — but delicious. L’Chaim!

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