RYE WHISKEYS HAVE a long and storied history in the United States, and prior to Prohibition, it was our nation's whiskey of choice. That said, George Washington distilled rye at his home in Mount Vernon and rye whiskey was at the epicenter of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.
For more than a century its production centered in and around Pennsylvania and Maryland, areas where large numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants settled and applied their collective knowledge and expertise in distillation. Following World War II, however, sales of rye whiskeys went into a protracted slump, a decline that reflected the steady rise in popularity of soft blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from American bars.
Fortunately that trend has reversed and the bold, exuberant flavors of American ryes have again attracted a broad-based following. It's easy to understand why after a sip or two. They're whiskeys with broad shoulders and a lot of personality, a character no doubt molded from our collective national self-image.
Noted journalist and whiskey authority Lew Bryson can shed some light on how much the category is growing. "I recently spoke with master distiller Craig Beam at Heaven Hill. They distill a great deal of rye whiskey. He told me that about five years ago they used to mash and distill rye once a year. Now it's once a month. In my book that's a bona fide resurgence."
Heaven Hill is not alone. Many of the major producers are now marketing at least one label of rye, which must be made with no less than 51% of its constituent ingredients being rye, the balance typically being malted barley and corn. If your whiskey-loving clientele is looking for a singular taste experience, suggest they set their sights on American Straight Rye Whiskey.
Fueling its revival is the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the rise of the mixologist. As the earliest rendition of American whiskey, rye was almost exclusively used as the foundation of 19th century cocktails that called for whiskey.
"We're in a time in which authenticity in cocktails is in high demand," observes Angus Winchester, drinks expert and master mixologist. "Today bartenders scour vintage drink recipe guides searching for long-forgotten classics. Eventually that pursuit instills them with deference for rye whiskey. It was prominently featured in cocktails of the golden era; not just as a result of being in wide supply, but because the whiskey imbues cocktails with incomparably intense flavors."
Brian Miller agrees. The former head bartender at cocktail haven Death & Company in New York says that he's yet to find another whiskey able to match the brilliance of rye's spicy notes in a cocktail.
"Until a year or so ago, few bars carried more than one label of rye, if any at all. Now people are clamoring for a broader selection of ryes, especially when it comes to brands affordably priced. There are legions of enthusiasts out there who like to sip cocktails popular in bygone eras."
RYE WHISKEYS MUST be what they drink in heaven. Although something that's difficult to verify as true, whiskey enthusiasts around the globe are beating a path to the US. The following is what they'll find when they get here.
• A. H. HIRSCH RYE — Made at the long defunct Michter's Distillery in Shaefferstown, Pennsylvania, A. H. Hirsch whiskey was produced first in a column still and secondly in a pot still before being aged in oak barrels for 22 years. It is an impressively full and vivacious whiskey with layers of warm, oaky flavors and an extended and satisfying finish. (Preiss Imports)
• BLACK MAPLE HILL RYE — Produced by independent bottler CVI of California, Black Maple Hill ryes are marketed in two 95-proof expressions—an 18-year old and an ultra-luxurious 23-year old. Both whiskeys have semisweet bouquets with loads of fruit and oaky charm on the finish. (CVI Brands)
• HUDSON MANHATTAN RYE — The first rye whiskey to be made legally in New York since Prohibition, Hudson Manhattan Rye from the Tuthilltown Distillery is a micro-distilled, small batch whiskey made from whole grain rye. The 92-proof whiskey has light floral notes and a spicy, slightly fruity palate. (Wm. Grant & Sons)
• JIM BEAM RYE — The brand credited with reviving the category, Jim Beam Rye debuted in 1940 and is the world's best selling rye whiskey. Aged for six-years, the whiskey is full-bodied with a fresh, lively bouquet. Despite the brand's modest price, it's among the most costly whiskies Jim Beam produces. (Jim Beam)
• MICHTER'S STRAIGHT RYES — Made in the heart of Kentucky's bourbon country, the distillery crafts two extraordinary single barrel ryes. Michter's US1 Straight Rye is aged a minimum of 4 years in used bourbon barrels and bottled at 84.5 proof, while the 10-year-old Straight Rye is 92.8 proof. (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers)
"IT SEEMS WHISKEY aficionados naturally gravitate to the dazzling, complex flavors in rye. It takes a seasoned palate to forge past the alcohol hit to appreciate its sweet valleys, nutty woods and high spicy peaks," contends Aidan Demarest, director of spirits and beverages at mega-popular The Edison in Los Angeles. "When making cocktails, I like to enhance its inherent spiciness with fresh ginger or ground pepper. When mixed I think rye whiskey performs rather like tequila and therefore pairs beautifully with citrus, fruit and spice. As far as styles, its superb featured in a SAZERAC, MANHATTAN and OLD FASHIONED."
Cocktail guru and drinks consultant Jonathan Pogash also sees the similarities between rye and tequila. "I recently created a cocktail that paired equal parts of the two. The RYE TEQ COCKTAIL is made with rye whiskey, El Tesoro Añejo, Benedictine, lime juice and two types of bitters. The drink's been really well-received."
Death & Company's Brian Miller thinks rye's versatility and bold spicy notes makes it perfectly suited for drink making. "I recently created a rye-based cocktail called the JANE RUSSELL. Borrowing a page from the tiki playbook, I blended together two whiskeys with distinctively different personalities—Russell's Reserve Rye and a lesser amount of Rittenhouse. The result was sexy and curvaceous."
American rye whiskeys are surprisingly affordable and mixable, much to the delight of a new generation of mixologists. Let the games begin.