The crafting of quality alcoholic beverages used to be done with pride in the United States, but even after prohibition was wisely lifted, the rationing imposed by necessity during the Second World War again waylaid the quality of the wine and spirits that Americans both consumed and created. This is most evident in American beers, as coming out of the war Americans had developed a taste for the types they had to drink in the times of hardship and rationing.
This meant that after the war brewers continued to brew their beers in the manner that had become commercially appealing. And for a few decades thereafter, other attempts at making beers that were more like the old-world-influenced beers died without fanfare. But this all changed with the rise of micro brewers beginning in the early 1990s and what became known as the craft brewing movement led by such brewers as the Boston Beer Company, better known for their flagship Samuel Adams beer, as well as by lesser known, though more important, Anchor Brewery in San Francisco who would also play a large part in the revival of Rye whiskey.
While beer makers were shedding the bland taste of the past, and climbing into a more flavorful and diverse future, so too American distilleries were climbing out from the woodwork to try to return to the whiskeys of old. But strangely enough it wasn’t a distillery at all but a brewer who would try to revive the oldest of all American sprits.
There are many aspects of George Washington’s personality that have been explored in depth by historians, but a new type of archeological excavation was underway to learn exactly the type of spirit he distilled in the eighteenth century. This excavation, so to speak, was started by Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewery, who, as fate would have it, was also an integral part of the micro brew revolution in the 90s.
Maytag, heir to the washing machine legacy, purchased the distressed Anchor Brewery in 1965 for the price, he says, “of a used car.” He immediately set to increasing the beer’s quality, and, in the early 70s moved to a larger location in San Francisco, the breweries ancestral home. But for Maytag the story would not end with good beer. In the early 90s he and his brewery also began experimenting with Rye Whiskey. As Maytag explains, Rye whiskey was America’s first whiskey, and was the spirit of choice for colonists on the eastern seaboard. Bourbon was a western flavor that was distilled from the corn they had there in abundance. But Rye was the choice of the colonists.
As Maytag began the process of making Rye whiskey in the old way, he also discovered that in Washington’s time the oak barrels used for aging the spirits were not charred as whiskey barrels are by law today. The process was not invented until the next century. Instead the barrels would only have been toasted. So with an eye to authenticity, Maytag began to have toasted oak barrels made to age his whiskey in. Subsequently, this eighteenth century style whiskey cannot be called Rye as Rye must be aged in charred oak barrels.
Another oddity of the brand is that the Rye whiskey which they produce under the name Old Potrero, is pot distilled, like scotch, and is made from 100% Rye malt. At the time, they were the only distillery to make a whiskey from 100% Rye. Maytag did this on the theory that the colonists, like the Scottish whisky producers they emulated, would have malted only a single grain. With the Scottish that grain was barley, but with the young American colonists that grain was Rye.
Finally after years of experimentation Anchor Brewery perfected their single malt Rye whiskey and has been releasing its Old Potrero 18th Century Style Whiskey to great acclaim for years now. Their entrance into the world of whiskey has helped increase not only the quality of our native spirits but also its diversity, only, and despite the fact that Old Potrero 18th century is made of 100% Rye, don’t call it Rye.