Not so very long ago, Zack Hall wanted to be the the best guitarist in the world. Now he wants to bake the best bread in the world, having shelved his music aspirations for the equally artistic calling of making old world, artisan loafs. His newest creation is a hearty Danish-style rye bread that uses rye berries soaked in rye whiskey, which is the foundation for a whiskey lover's dream sandwich with the cheeky name of "When Pigs Rye".
A Glass of Whiskey Started It All...
So, just how - and why - does a baker decide to make bread with whiskey in it? In 2014, Hall started Clark Street Bread out of his West Hollywood apartment. This year, he is opening a 3,000 square foot brick and mortar bakery. Despite the evolution of Hall's business, one ritual hasn't changed. “Grains are the heart of Clark Street Bread and I always end my day [of] baking with a glass of whiskey,” he says. That daily tipple was the impetus for When Pigs Rye, a sandwich that, like a well-conceived song tells a story, offers multiple riffs on the layers present in rye whiskey. In doing so, Hall has taken something traditional - ham on rye - and elevated it.
Rye Offers a Spicy Note
When Hall embarked on this project, he already recognized the obvious affinity between rye whiskey and rye bread. If you think of rye bread and rye whiskey at one end of the spectrum versus corn bread and bourbon, which is a primarily corn-based spirit, at the other end, you get a sense of the flavor profiles in play. For the spirit, Hall chose Redemption Rye because of its high rye content. While regulations require that any rye whiskey labeled as such must have at least 51% rye, Redemption is a high-proof 95% rye whiskey, which offers up robust spice notes that play off of the rye bread's inherent savoriness.
Since both rye whiskey and rye bread are born from the grain itself, Hall explains, "I wanted to start at the origin. By combining rye whiskey with the actual rye berry we get to take the final product back to the first step, which is a high quality rye grain." The rye berries are soaked overnight in water and whiskey, creating what Hall describes as "a surprisingly terrific bottom note, not necessarily heat or sweetness, but a roundness and warmth."
Layering Flavor on Flavor
In addition to the rye whiskey-infused bread base, the rye is used in two other steps to create the sandwich. Black and yellow mustard seeds are soaked overnight in the rye to produce a spicy mustard; a touch of whiskey is also added to the pickling mixture -- simple vinegar, water, and rye -- for the dill pickles, producing a crispy dill with a lot of heat. While it might seem like spice overload, the rye is used to highlight and bind all the other flavors. The rye whiskey and rye grain create a symbiotic partnership, while the Redemption rye with its specific notes of mint, anise, and baking spices, complements the roasted pork.
Hall isn't about to stop with rye, saying, "The sky is the limit with experimentation. I'd like to try some other grains beyond rye like wheat, corn, barley. Maybe even a cinnamon raisin bread, where the raisins are soaked in whiskey. Each could lend itself to really interesting possibilities in both bread making and cooking. He expects his new bakery to become "the center of experimentation and more booze and bread combinations."
From Traditional to Extraordinary
For now, using rye whiskey in rye bread is a vivid illustration of how one can layer similar flavors for intensity. Beyond that, it provides a lesson in how a chef or bartender or, in this case, baker, can keep customers on their toes by taking an iconoclastic approach to something familiar. As Hall says, "I hoped to create a new twist on an old classic. By infusing the bread with whiskey this way, we could offer a product that is new and exciting and unlike anything we have done before."
In the few years since he started baking, Hall's Clark Street Bread has garnered a passionate following. His Grand Central Market stall is open from 9 am to 3:30 pm, seven days a week, offering freshly-baked breads and viennoiserie to customers who willingly drive across town in L.A. traffic to load up on his creations. Likewise, restaurants across town, including Chateau Marmont, Marvin, and Alma serve his products. What began as the proverbial labor of love has evolved into a calling for Zack Hall. It seems that abandoning his guitar pick for a less glamorous combination of water, flour, salt, and yeast was a good call.