Rye Whiskey is living proof of the truism “Everything old is new again.”
The beverage most associated with the Roaring 20s and speakeasies has long since faded into the background, and for years was only made by a few distillers almost as an afterthought. But just when it seemed doomed to be appreciated only by historians, American Rye has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. More and more brands are hitting the market, with many traditional bourbon distilleries branching out with a bottle or two of rye as well.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start – this trend is still in its infancy. There are far fewer brands of rye whiskey on the liquor store shelves than there are bourbons, and much fewer options at the bar. In part, that’s because it’s not like distilleries can begin popping out bottles of rye whiskey two weeks after its marketers notice the trend lines … like all whiskies, rye takes time to make and age properly. The fruits of this won’t be truly felt for another few years, when the carefully-crafted bourbons that are responding to this trend rather than anticipating it hit the market.
Still, there is enough out there now that rye has moved away from being a purely niche beverage. It’s much easier to find now than it was a decade ago, and that should only increase in the coming years. If you’ve never tried it before, there’s no time like the present to give it a shot – especially if you’re a bourbon drinker who is curious about these other liquors that your favorite distillery is bringing to market.
Rye’s resurgence doesn’t mean there’s a rivalry with bourbon, at least not as far as distilleries are concerned. That’s because for the most part, the leading bourbon distilleries also are involved in rye production as well. It’s also because the beverages tend to be complementary of one another, with interest in one increasing demand for the other.
The two drinks share a lot in common. For starters, rye and bourbon are arguably the two quintessential American spirits. Rye was the big thing before Prohibition, and bourbon took over afterwards. Between them, they’ve been the native-distilled drinks most Americans have enjoyed from the early days of the country to the present day.
When the country consisted of colonies instead of states and the British, Native Americans and Appalachian Mountains limited most settlements to the East Coast, many locals used their distilleries to make rye-based spirits. In fact, George Washington had a distillery in Mount Vernon, one that even today continues to churn out a version of the rye that our first President enjoyed in the Colonial days. Different areas of the East Coast had their local specialties – Pennsylvania generally produced rye that was sweeter and more robust, while Maryland rye had a more earthy character – but until the temperance movement took hold and the police began hacking up barrels of booze with their ever-present axes, this was the drink of choice.
But while the U.S. love for alcohol was too much for Prohibition to conquer, moving liquor underground did erode the American addiction to rye. During the period in which alcohol was illegal, lighter-flavored Canadian rye became the most popular option at the local speakeasy. Afterwards, bourbon soon eclipsed it in the hearts and flask of most drinkers. Bourbon, of course, had a rich history of its own to fall back on, having been distilled in Kentucky since the late 18th Century. While it saw its popularity soar, rye went from being the most popular drink in town to the cheap stuff that old people and drunkards were depicted as swigging.
What accounts for that change? Corn was cheaper, for one thing. But more to the point, it’s not like the U.S. was sitting on barrels of aged rye whiskey ready to unleash back into the country’s bars once alcohol was legal again. The whole point of Prohibition was that alcohol was supposed to be permanently illegal, so except in rare cases where exceptions were granted it wasn’t prudent to keep it around at all. By the time that changed, and by the time anyone could have gotten the fermented Rye mashbill aged enough to bring to market, Canadian Whisky had garnered a foothold that proved difficult to dislodge, and drinkers had grown accustomed to its more mild taste as opposed to the feistiness of the original.
Now, taste trends seem to be going the other way. With the growing reception towards trying new drinks, or beverages that take a different twist on an old favorite, it’s only natural that many are becoming curious about what rye has to offer. Though it is similar enough to bourbon that the sprits can be and are substituted for one another in cocktails, there are distinct taste differences based on how each is created and distilled.
The basic difference between bourbon and rye is in the mashbill. Rye whiskey has to come from a mashbill that contains at least 51% rye, with corn and malted barley generally completing the mix. For it to be “straight rye,” it can’t be produced at more than 160 proof and had to be aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon has similar distilling rules, but is corn-based, and must come from a mashbill containing at least 51% corn (and it can’t be more than 79% corn, or it becomes corn whiskey).
However, many bourbons are so-called “rye bourbons,” meaning that much of the mashbill that isn’t corn uses rye as the flavoring small grain. If you’re accustomed to drinking one of these, the main difference that you’ll see between the two spirits is that there’s an obvious increased emphasis in the spiciness of the rye and a decrease in the sweetness of the corn. This is particularly true for bourbons with a higher percentage of rye in the mashbill, like Four Roses Single Barrel, Bulleit and Basil Hayden. If you like the bite of those bourbons, rye whiskey may be more to your liking.
And of course, there is a big difference between American Rye vs. Canadian Rye. Canadian Rye technically doesn’t have to have any rye at all, and many are mostly corn-based, so don’t assume that if you like a Canadian Rye that you will naturally like the domestic drink with the same name. It’s important to read the label before purchasing a Canadian Whisky if what you’re looking for is the rye character.
It’s also important to watch the bartender when you order a rye, to make sure that they don’t reach for the bottle of Canadian Whisky out of habit. A decade ago, it often was assumed that when a patron asked for a rye, they wanted something Canadian. That attitude has mostly changed, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the bartender to make sure.
There’s no disputing that a few decades ago, rye looked poised to be doomed to a few options geared solely towards a small niche band of devoted drinkers. Now, it is back in favor. In this, it owes some of its success to the growing appreciation among those who love alcohol for options that are more carefully made and less easy to find – the revival of appreciating old-school foods and craftsmanship.
With craft beers and small-batch bourbons enjoying an extended run of good fortune, it’s no surprise that distilleries (both large and small) would be curious about what a similarly-engineered bottle of rye would taste like. This is especially true among those who already distill bourbon, and have the means to get extra rye from the suppliers that provide it for that mashbill. With the facilities for distilling and aging the alcohol already in place, it doesn’t cost much to expand into rye whiskey if a potential market for it is discovered.
It doesn’t have to be a million-man market either. Small-batch beverages also showed distributors that it was possible to make money without selling a high quantity of bottles. Consumers have shown that they are willing to pay more for something that is more rare and that they perceive to be something made with extra care and in a different way than is common.
Rye whiskey is a natural beneficiary of this. It hits a lot of the hot-button issues in the general food and liquor market, and in many cases does so better than bourbon. Its history bona-fides are at least as good, and it is distilled in more places than its corn-based rival, so someone looking to drink something local is more likely to find that in a rye.
Because of that, rye tends to be produced in smaller quantities than bourbon. The prices reflect that, as you’ll spend a couple of dollars more for a bottle of rye than you will for a similar bourbon at most places.
If we’re talking geography, bourbon is most famously distilled in Kentucky (as anyone who has gone on the Bourbon Trail can attest. And if you haven’t, you should). Rye was traditionally a product of the East Coast, notably in Pennsylvania and Maryland, though, since Prohibition, much of the production has shifted to Kentucky as well. That’s one big change in rye production since Prohibition … it has gone from being the prime product of most distilleries to a side product that bourbon producers bring to market.
You see that in the craft rye whiskeys that erstwhile bourbon distillers have introduced. Buffalo Trace brings us Sazerac, which takes its name from the traditional rye-based cocktail. Old Rip Van Winkle has its Family Reserve Rye. Heaven Hill has Old Rittenhouse. Wild Turkey and Jim Beam produce rye whisky as well as the bourbon that made them famous.
But that’s not the only place Rye can be found, or the only place where it enjoys a history. Templeton Rye, for example, is the pride of Iowa and has a tradition dating back to the 1920s when the farming turned sour and the market for illegally-distilled sports turned sweet. Old Potrero comes from San Francisco’s Anchor Distillery. Catoctin Creek is in Virginia (and is certified as both organic and kosher). And High West Distillery brings Rye to market from an area not often associated with alcohol – Utah.
Of course, the difference in the mashbill means that rye and bourbon have a different taste to them. Rye is a little more assertive than bourbon, and less sweet. It’s a spicier drink that becomes more subtle and endearing as it ages, but it never quite loses that initial jolt of intensity.
That’s part of the reason it was the inspiration for the Manhattan, among other cocktails, and if you’re interested in comparing the flavors of the two beverages, sampling Manhattans is a good way to start. The Sazerac, another cocktail that was built for rye and then commandeered by bourbon, can also best be appreciated with the alcohol it was designed for. Same with the Old Fashioned.
In all three cases, bourbon became the prime ingredient in a drink that was intended to be made with rye, to the point that many cocktail drinkers out there have never had one the way that the original barkeeps (I shudder to think what the drink makers of that era would have done if they had been called a “mixologist,” perhaps because I’ve seen enough mob movies to guess that the outcome might be enough to garner an R-rating). That is changing, thanks to the growing popularity and availability of rye, and it’s becoming more common to find rye tastings where you can get samples of each of the above. If not, it’s simple enough just to head down to the liquor store, grab a bottle, and mix ‘em up yourself.
What lies ahead
The question on the mind of many who love American whiskeys is whether this fascination with rye is a passing fad, or whether rye is poised to again challenge bourbon for supremacy in the near future.
The answer is probably somewhere in between. Rye is not going to seriously challenge bourbon anytime soon. There’s no turning back time to the early 1900s, and bourbon appears to be very well entrenched in the market. Moreover, there isn’t the volume of aged rye whiskey available yet to support the kind of demand that bourbon is seeing, so there isn’t much incentive for the marketing push and big-dollar sponsorships it would take to get rye up to that level. It also seems unlikely that rye will get into position to overtake it because many of the principle distillers of rye are also big names in the bourbon industry with little incentive to make the push necessary to alter the status quo to that degree.
But it’s also very likely that rye will continue to get more common, particularly as more people get the pleasure of trying an original Manhattan and discover the joys of a rye-based cocktail. Bottles of rye are likely to find themselves alongside the Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey in the liquor cabinet, which is nothing but a win-win situation for those fans of American whiskey.
If nothing else, rye does appear to be back on the scene as a signature American spirt, and fortunately that appears to be here to stay.
04/11 Had an opportunity to sample a Bourbon and a Rye of the same age and from the same distillery last night. Russell's Reserve Bourbon and Russell Reserve Rye. Both were delightful; however, I personally couldn't tell that much difference. Was expecting there to be a more discernable difference. Since it both come off the still as as clear, odorless, and tasteless mix of of alcohol and water, and are aged in identical barrels it shouldn't be that surprising. (The Bourbon is 10 years old, the Rye only 6 but close enough. Both were priced identically.) It anything, the rye was slightly sweeter.