The increasing popularity of American Rye whiskey

August 27, 2015

It’s hard to imagine now, but until a few years ago, rye was the dodo bird of American whiskey. It could be argued that leading up to Prohibition, rye was the most popular and plentiful spirit in the country. However, once the so-called “Noble Experiment” ended with the ratification of the 21st amendment in 1933, rye was pretty much wiped from the liquid landscape.

The history of American rye whiskey

The silenced distilleries had stopped making it and even the ones that were still operating for “medicinal” or religious dispensation had focused on other products. Then most of the grain crops grown in the U.S. were heavily rationed during World War II. Once the clouds parted in the 1940s, the only rye available was Canadian, and people simply got used to it. [Ed. Note: We’ll be diving further into Canadian Rye soon, there’s a lot to learn]

Rye is bourbon’s spicier and less weighty cousin. To be labeled as rye in the states, the mash must contain at least 51% rye, usually mixed with malted barley, corn and other grains, though some distilleries opt for 100% or close to it to optimize the spice factor. The reason rye rose to popularity the first time was in the late 1700s to replace the rum which was no longer being traded thanks to the Revolution. Pennsylvania and Maryland were at the core of the rye boom. Like barbecue, rye had its own regional style. Pennsylvania’s (also known as Monongahela) was sweeter and more brawny while Maryland’s tended to be softer and rounder.

American rye whiskey in cocktails

Cocktails containing rye rose to popularity at the turn of the 20th century. When a recipe called for “whiskey” it was all but understood this meant rye whiskey. Once Prohibition and its aftermath had done their damage, some distilleries were making it again – but not with the intention of producing a whiskey over which to ponder. Pennsylvania’s Old Overholt, (once produced under the brand name Large) was one of the only pre-1920s brands to make the transition.

If rye was produced at all, it was primarily as a tiny extension of big brand Kentucky bourbon distillers to satisfy a small customer base. It was popular to mix it with ginger and rock candy for the concoction known as Rock and Rye, and wasn’t expected to be any good on its own. Since most states made it so tedious and expensive to distill liquor as an independent brand, if it was even legal to do so, no one really bothered.

The resurgence of cocktail culture

Fast forward to the 90s-era rise of cocktail culture and a new nostalgical interest in early American drinking and a newfound emphasis on craft distilling – and everything changed for Rye. Through the 2000s, as more states relaxed their liquor production licensing policies, rye became an integral, even expected, component of every craft distiller’s product offering.

Consumers lapped it up, even at the high price points that were being set to cover startup costs. At one point there was even a wave of panic that a rye shortage loomed because bars and retailers couldn’t keep it stocked. That’s when the big name whiskey companies saw an opportunity to up their rye game, and huge brands that had never previously offered a rye style slowly began to introduce matured rye styles with great success. Even bourbon brands got in the act, adding as much rye as they legally could to the mash to spice things up, calling them “high rye” bourbon, or producing maverick rye/bourbon blends.

With so many choices out there, it can be a bit overwhelming. Here’s a handy list of ryes in a wide range of styles, as well as a list of some of the hottest and newest releases.

Brand New Bottlings

Ragtime Rye
– Whistle Pig Old World Series Madeira Cask, Sauternes Cask and Port Finish
Leopold Bros. Maryland-Style Rye
Pikesville Straight Rye
Journeyman Distillery Federalist 12th Rye
A.D. Laws Secale Straight Rye
Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye

Classic Rye From the Bigger Guys

Woodford Reserve
Knob Creek
Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Rye
Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond
Michter’s 10 Year
Angel’s Envy
George Dickel
Willett Family Estate
Old Overholt

Craft Distillers and Fun Experiments

Hillrock Estate Double Cask
High West Rendezvous
Corsair Ryemageddon
Redemption Barrel Proof Straight Rye
Old Potrero Hotaling’s Single Malt
Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye
Rough Rider Bull Moose 3 Barrel
Ole George Straight Rye
Koval Single Barrel Rye

If you’re in the mood for a nice new rye, we can help with that!

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