Rebirth of colonial-era whiskey fuels a local slow-sip movement

Settlers grew rye along the Atlantic Coast, so that's what the first American distillers ran through their homemade copper stills: a cereal grain, close cousin of barley and wheat, that spiced their whiskey like a bolt of lightning.

European whiskey could be imported but never recreated in the colonies. Bourbon came later, made sweet and golden by the Midwest's abundant corn.

In the beginning, rye whiskey was king.

Now, decades after it nearly disappeared, rye is back.

"Rye whiskey was the first whiskey made in America, but over the years, rye kind of dropped off," said Jimmy Russell, master distiller for Wild Turkey, which produces several types of rye. "In the last three or four years, rye took a tremendous jump. It's really growing right now."

Once as American as jazz or baseball, the indigenous spirit became the backbone of numerous classic cocktails, then dwindled to a slow trickle after Prohibition.

Smuggled-in Canadian whisky came to represent the gold standard of spirits during Prohibition. Many drinkers thirsted for sweeter, corn-based spirits like bourbon, and by the late 1930s, U.S. farmers were growing roughly 30 times more corn than rye. Troops stationed throughout Europe during World War II eventually returned with a taste for Scotch.

Other theories abound about rye's demise, but reasons for its new life are no secret.

"These young mixologists like it for their mixed drinks, and they're going back to the old recipes that people used before Prohibition," Russell said. "I'm one of these old fellas from Kentucky who'll always say, 'What goes around, comes around.'"

Like much of the country, Columbus is witnessing a renaissance of classic cocktail culture - and the movement is awash in rye.

Beautiful, aromatic cocktails like the Manhattan, Sazerac and Old Fashioned are popping up on menus at Mouton, Knead, Bar L'Etranger and Barrel 44. These and other retro libations provide the pedestal for rye's thin mouthfeel, earthy mettle and peppery spice.

"It's dry and has such complex flavor," said Logan Demmy, a bartender at Mouton. "When I'm drinking a whiskey beverage, you want that cowboy kick. When I'm mixing, I'm looking for something with punch."

Aside from flavor, Demmy savors the process of making a great rye drink - muddling sugar cubes, rinsing glasses with absinthe and performing other tasks required to craft a good Greenpoint or Sazerac.

Others have joined a local slow-sip trend fueled in part by the resilient spirit of a bygone era.

"That's right on point with what we're doing with our food - making everything by hand, from scratch," said Krista Lopez, who owns Knead with her husband, Rick. "We want to carry that over into our cocktail list. I really feel like the flavored martini craze is over."