Rye whiskey symbolizes the American colonial spirit. For all their puritanical pursuits, when the colonists weren’t busy with the sordid details of colonizing, they were making booze. Those hailing from Ireland and Scotland, while not uniquely familiar with the magical art of distillation, were both experienced with the process and disposed to consume the elixir. Being practical, and based on necessity, the colonists used what grains were on hand and American whiskies closely interrelated with localized agriculture and farming.
Pennsylvania and Maryland were among the first colonies and the new locals distilled rye whiskey because the grain — similar to wheat and barley — was bountiful. This differed from those that later settled in Kentucky where there was plenty of corn available. There, bourbon was born, cobbled together, than codified. But that is another story. Both styles of American whiskey were popular and you could expect to have both styles available to you when you ordered a whiskey in the colonial era. Because our colonial predecessors had a healthy thirst, both bourbon and rye whiskey had no problem surviving in the market and making the rounds, as it were.
Rye’s namesake and defining characteristic is its prominent expression of the grain from which it is distilled. Bourbon generally tends to have a sweeter more caramelized profile, putting its dark sugars and barrel char out front. Scotch often invokes the local air, earth, and water, with a smoky, peaty flavor. But rye stands alone in that the base grain is what it is known for, what you taste when it hits your palate. Rye boasts a tightly bound, peppery note that may hint at licorice or a wisp of mint. But in the end, its dominant taste is a decidedly bright-yet-dry beacon rising above the tide of alcohol and sugar flavors surrounding it.
With the passage of time, while bourbon went from local tradition to legal standard, rye whisky flourished in its own, malleable right. And perhaps bourbon was gradually engendered with a certain cache that came with its iron-clad requirements, while rye took on the hue of a slightly more rustic, at times bucolic spirit. But rye did succumb to legal requirements of its own, in short: at least fifty-one percent rye is distilled at no more than 160 proof and, at no less than 125 proof, and is interred in charred new-oak barrels where it must bide its time for a minimum of two years. These legal requirements are the same for bourbon except that bourbon must be made from a mash containing a minimum of fifty-one percent corn (but no more than seventy-nine percent).
Rye was arguably the king of American whiskey prior to 1920. As the American thirst for whiskey increased, so did its production. Rye slowly departed from its agrarian roots due to this demand and became an industry in its own right. After enjoying westward expansion along with the descendants of the colonists and newcomers alike, rye reached the West Coast, found its place in many a respectable cocktail, and enjoyed a good degree of national favor.
Then rye and everything else good in the ex-colonies went straight to hell on the Nineteenth Amendment expressway — prohibition. So from 1920 through 1933 all production — legal production that is — stopped. Many of the once flourishing distilleries soon went out of business with no product to pedal. And the swill that the bootleggers were providing just wasn’t up to par.
Prohibition did end, more or less, and the hobbled alcohol industries of the ex-colonies (who now had a few colonies of their own) got back to work. Unfortunately for rye, like the times, peoples’ palates had changed over the thirteen dry years. Rye — and its distinctive flavor — was no longer king, instead the corn based bourbon became the preferred tipple.
To compound the problems for a rye comeback, Pennsylvania and Maryland had other industries established that were able to absorb the void in work created by prohibition. There was no real economic need to get the rye distilleries back in action and so much of the investment money found its way to Kentucky and into the bourbon country. As a result, the once beloved rye spirit slowly faded away out of people’s memories and all but disappeared. Old Overholt primarily carried the flag of rye whiskey production out of the prohibition period. This distillery still exists today under Jim Beam.
While bourbon rose steadily back to prominence after prohibition, rye languished. It wasn’t that there weren’t good ryes available for the past several decades, but it has suffered a bit of an image issue.
For those in the know, rye has been well appreciated. Until recently, however, rye has all too often been associated with good ol’ boys , cowboys, and not a whole lot else. Perhaps the single most influential and lasting commentary on rye and the reason for its mistakenly lower status in the pantheon of spirits lies at the feet of Don McLean and his enigmatic 1971 hit, American Pie. In his seminal tune, we behold a world of Chevies, arid levees, and good old boys drinking whisky and rye. Whisky and rye. This implies that not only is rye something oft quaffed by less cultured sorts, but that it isn’t even whisky. And the gritty, moonshiny-nature of it stuck.
In the cycle of things, however, that rustic liability has taken on a certain allure. Rye has slowly crept back into America’s and the world’s alcoholic consciousness. Indeed, with the resurgence of rye beyond the aficionados, makers and purveyors of rye are taking advantage of a youthful, hip interest in the other American whiskey.
A recent player in the game, High West’s name and labels are an unabashed play on the pioneering mystique of saloon doors and shoot-outs. Bulleit, no stranger to bourbon, held a release party for their new 95 Rye in the Log Cabin in San Francisco with biscuits and other victuals. As the name indicates, the mashbill contains ninety-five percent rye but surprisingly it is welcoming and not overpoweringly hot. The spicy character of rye comes on quickly in an unmistakably strong dose, paving the way for a lush wave of spirit and heat. Subtle sugar and wood notes make the rounds before the high-rye content washes the palate And then the flavors slowly fade into memory.
Bulleit sources the contents of the 95 Rye from the oft mysterious Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (“LDI”). Aside from being a good sipper when served neat, it should make excellent cocktails. Templeton is another rye that has been gathering a lot of attention for its flavor – but that might not be too surprising since they source their spirit from LDI as well . Beam Global put a new spin on rye by releasing (ri)1 (pronounced rye-one). It comes in a cool, hip bottle and carries a premium price tag but this more subtle and slightly sweeter rye expression is a welcome addition as a straight sipper or used in cocktails. Some other distilleries that have readily available rye whiskies include Sazerac, Rittenhouse, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. You might also find some un-aged rye from Copper Fox and from a local distillery bay area distillery 1512 Spirits.
Rye has come full circle, it has risen from the dead, raised from the ashes, and any other metaphor for making a come back you can think of. The return of this bold and spicy American spirit — so closely tied to our history as a colony and then a country — is a welcome occurrence. None of us are old enough to remember the fall of rye, but we can all take part in its return. If you have never tried rye, drink it and don’t look back. Be it straight or in a cocktail, it is one of the few colonial contributions beyond reproach.