Today’s distillates are evoking a time when rye was the hottest spirit in town. —INGRAIN, Fall/Winter 2019
STORY / Mike Smith
Does the word rye scare you? Do you only know it from the song “American Pie”? The spirit wasn’t my first choice when I started sipping whiskey, either.
Hot, spicy, and dry? Sure, rye can have those qualities. But don’t throw all rye into that same bucket. A well-crafted rye might have grassy, minty, floral, and anise notes, maybe hints of toasted caramel and hard candy—all the great flavors of bourbon. It might also be rich with bitter rye oils. As with other aged spirits, these characteristics can be subtle so that the sweeter notes of the spirit shine, or they might pop your palate head-on as you take a sip.
Like so many alcoholic beverages, rye whiskey has weathered its share of ups and downs. In the early 1800s, tax hikes on imported Caribbean rum (as well as on the molasses American distillers used to make rum) got so high that it made sense for farmers to find a new grain to distill. A few decades earlier, the first Kentucky bourbons were released to the American market by Robert Samuels and Jacob Beam. Bourbon was a product of the abundant Southern corn crop; farmers would distill their extra corn (it would spoil if left in the silos for long periods of time).
Up north, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Canada would emerge as the main rye-growing regions. One of the first orders of business for a recent immigrant toting a still from back home was to figure out what crops were in abundance to distill into a spirit. Rye farmers were also eager to utilize their excess crop. Typically distillers would make a pure-grain spirit or add a little corn to the mix to lend a sweet character to the spirit; whatever was in there, it was a hit.
By the early 1800s, the demand for rye whiskey was three times greater than the demand for bourbon. (Think of all the old-time movie scenes with cowboys saddling up to the bar for a rye whiskey.) Even the distillery ledgers at Mount Vernon were rye-centric. George Washington’s whiskey (1798 and 1799 vintages) was a blend of 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley. And like most American whiskeys at the time, it was a clear, unaged spirit.
The rye life was good for the next 100 years or so, but as with so many other alcoholic beverages, most rye distillers didn’t survive the 13-year sales hiatus brought on by Prohibition. After the 18th Amendment was lifted, corn-and wheat-based whiskeys made a comeback, but rye distillers were suddenly missing their key ingredient; the crop had shrunk significantly or vanished altogether in once abundant regions. Meanwhile, palates gradually shifted to favor drinks with a sweeter profile (spirits with more corn/wheat). Even as the whiskey industry made a gradual comeback in the late 1980s and struck gold in the 1990s, ryes were still largely absent from store shelves.
Enter the new millennium, a new era for rye whiskey. Small and larger American producers alike are releasing their own unaged (à la George Washington), aged, or blended ryes, or importing and blending high-quality Canadian spirits. In 2010, Whistle Pig in Vermont was one of the first American companies to put its flag down and offer a unique new blend of rye whiskey. (The first whiskeys were blended Canadian ryes that were bottled locally; Whistle Pig has been distilling its own ryes since 2015.)
Recently, more and more distilleries have thrown their rye hat into the ring. Some, like Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye from Mountain Laurel Spirits, aim to mimic the original rye style once common in western Pennsylvania. (Dad’s Hat is distilled from locally farmed grass and grain with an 80% rye, 5% malted rye, and 15% malted barley mash bill.) Farmers are even growing new strains of rye to impart unique flavors into their whiskeys.
Ryes—and rye cocktails—have come a long way since those early American moonshine and wild (Mid)western days.
Like wheat and barley, rye is a grass that has been cultivated for its grain for thousands of years. Wild varieties were domesticated as early as the Neolithic period in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey); the grain was brought to the Northeastern and Midwestern United States by English and Dutch settlers. Today the majority of rye grown in the U.S. is used to feed livestock or exported; the remainder is used as a distilling ingredient or processed by the food industry.
Distillers must follow the same guidelines that bourbon makers follow. The product must be made in the U.S. and aged in newly charred American oak barrels with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. A small amount of malted barley is often in the grain bill, along with the “flavoring grain,” typically wheat for a sweeter, mellower bourbon or, in this case, rye to add more spice and fruitiness.
Low Rye Bourbon The flavoring grain (rye) is 10% to 20% of the mash bill. These are like dipping your pinky into the rye pond.
High Rye Bourbon The mash bill is 20% to 35% rye. These bourbons start to distinguish themselves from the pack and taste like jumping into the rye pond. Chances are you have already been drinking some high rye bourbons and just didn’t know it.
To qualify, these whiskeys must be a product of the U.S. and aged in newly charred American oak barrels. They must be distilled with at least 51% rye; some have as much as 100%. The flavor and profile of each whiskey will vary depending on how much—and what kind of—rye is used. Some are slightly spicy and smooth, while others lean toward spicy and dry.
CANADIAN RYE WHISKEY
Canadian whiskey is often referred to as “rye whiskey” because originally, most of the mash bill was rye. However, today there are no rules requiring that a distiller use a certain amount of the grass—or any rye at all. As long as the aroma and taste generally reflect a Canadian whiskey, a distiller can label the spirit Canadian whiskey, rye whiskey, or Canadian rye whiskey. That flavor and character are mainly achieved by blending batches of bourbon (for instance, a corn/wheat whiskey might be blended with a “flavoring whiskey” that has a high rye content; color may also be added). Aging information isn’t required on labels, either, so do your research.
The newest variant, Empire Rye, was created in 2017 by nine whiskey distillers in New York state who banded together to develop their own regional rye variation. Empire Rye must be made from at least 75% New York state–grown rye, distilled in a single local distillery, and aged at least two years. The essence of that unique local rye grain can be tasted in each bottle.
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