American Rye Whiskey Is Having a Moment
Rye whiskey, noted for its strength and spice, is on the ascent. While rye itself—defined as a whiskey made with at least 51% rye grain—has been around for centuries, there have never been so many variations and expressions available. Today, it seems like every distillery has its own spin on the historic spirit, from the use of heirloom grains to unusual cask finishes.
Unlike corn-based bourbon, which can only be made in the U.S., rye can be made anywhere. Both the grain and whiskey made from it have globe-spanning roots. Since the Middle Ages, rye grain has been cultivated in central and eastern Europe, where it was valued as an ingredient in bread, writes Carlo DeVito in his 2021 book The Spirit of Rye. From there, the hardy grain, which flourishes in cooler climates, found its way to the British Isles and what is now Scandinavia and was brought by colonists to the U.S.
“It was a popular grain because it was easy to grow and a reliable winter cash crop for states within New England as well as New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Michigan,” DeVito says—all areas that now have regional rye whiskey heritages. “It was no surprise then that many of the first distilleries in Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania predominantly produced rye whiskeys.”
By the 1820s, rye whiskey had started to become a barrel-aged product. But a decade later, when Prohibition went into effect, many U.S. distilleries ceased or reduced operations, and American rye became harder to procure. Canadian whiskey, including rye, featured prominently in bootlegging to the U.S. during Prohibition.
Rye never really recovered from Prohibition; even after World War II, whiskey from Canada, Ireland and Scotland took up the slack. As American distilleries attempted to restart operations, bourbon made headway first. It wasn’t until the cocktail resurgence of the late 1990s and early aughts that demand for American rye returned: The lean, spicy whiskey plays well in mixed drinks, and was specifically called for in many classic recipes.
Driven by bartenders seeking rye to mix into historically accurate cocktails, that’s when the latest—and most dynamic—chapter for rye really began.
Does It Matter Where Rye Is Grown?
Allen Katz, distiller and cofounder of New York Distilling Company, was on the scene when demand for rye started bubbling up. “It’s been an evolving revival for close to a generation of cocktail drinkers,” he recalls. “If you go back to the not-so-distant past, if you asked for a rye Manhattan there was probably only one offering, Canadian rye.”
His Brooklyn craft distillery opened in 2011. While it could have focused on any spirit, rye became one of its hallmarks. From a distiller’s point of view, Katz notes, bourbon was already a saturated market: “I love bourbon, but as a distiller, there’s not a lot I could add to the conversation. It’s already been covered by the stalwart brands in Kentucky and elsewhere,” he explains. “The one available to explore is rye.”
He introduced Ragtime Rye, a vibrant, “cocktail-focused rye” made with New York state-grown grains, in 2015. Two years later, NYDC became one of the founding distillers at Empire Rye, a New York state whiskey appellation.
Like Kentucky rye or Tennessee whiskey, a growing number of rye producers have sought to put a regional stamp on their rye. In addition to Maryland and Pennsylvania rye—styles named for the two states that once reigned over rye production—official designations now include New York’s Empire and, as of 2021, Indiana rye.
Does it really matter where rye is grown? Yes, advocates say. It’s not just a matter of local agricultural pride; it can make a difference in how the finished whiskey tastes.
“We’ve been doing this for 13 years,” says Scott Harris, cofounder of Catoctin Creek, a craft distillery in Purcellville, VA. He recalls taking samples of his distillery’s rye to trade shows, where people observed Catoctin’s “nutty” rye tasted different from rye sourced from MGP, a large commercial distillery in Indiana. “At first I was offended,” he remembers. “It took my thick head a long time to realize we were talking about terroir … Rye from Virginia tastes different from rye from Kentucky or Indiana.”
The Fine Wine of Whiskey
Rye is like the fine wine of whiskey, posits Michael Swanson of Minnesota’s Far North Spirits. Just like a grape variety impacts how wine tastes, rye varieties can be particularly expressive, too, he explains. In 2021, he released a study of 15 varieties of rye to prove that very point.
“All things being equal, the variety of rye alone will impact the flavor of a whiskey,” Swanson says. “We have different varieties grown next to each other that tasted very different” once distilled into whiskey. Barrel-aging amplified those differences in his trials. Compared to the toasted grain notes provided by Hazlet, the variety Far North typically uses to make its whiskey, rye distilled from other varieties were described as more vegetal or floral (Aroostook, Dylan varieties); fruity or sweet (Rymin, Spooner), or spiced (Wheeler).
While his study focused on mainstream varieties, his next project focuses on a “seed vault,” including some rare and heirloom ryes—yielding surprising results.
Of note, Oklon Winter Rye was this year’s focus. While it was challenging to grow and ferment, Swanson notes, and wasn’t very tasty coming straight off the still, “something magical had taken place” after barrel-aging time: “It had notes that would remind you of a Speyside Scotch,” he says. Next up: Rosen Rye, an heirloom variety that was grown in Pennsylvania in the early 20th century but hasn’t been grown in Minnesota “for maybe 100 years,” according to Swanson. “We’re going to see how it does here.”
Turning the Rye Dial Up to 11
By definition, rye whiskey needs to contain at least 51% rye grain. While some producers seek to temper rye’s bite with other grains, others opt to zip the amount up to the maximum.
“Ours is 100% rye,” says Colby Frey, cofounder and “whiskey farmer,” at Nevada’s Frey Ranch Distillery—specifically, Prima, a mellow Canadian variety.
Of course, not all distillers are willing to make a 100% rye: the more rye in a mash, the stickier and trickier it can be to work with, producers say: It’s with good reason the late whiskey expert Dave Pickerell referred to rye as “the brat of whiskey grains.”
Yet, Frey says rye on full blast was the only way to go. “We did that because we didn’t want any of the influences from the other grains influencing the flavor,” he explains. “We started in 2006 and realized how beautiful and great the rye was at 100%. We fell in love with it.
Look Ma, No Hands
Have we reached peak rye yet? Probably not.
But one sign we may be approaching: an uptick in celebrity and “stunt” ryes. The former includes names like Bob Dylan (Heaven’s Door) and collabs like Brainville (FEW Whiskey + Flaming Lips) and Ragnarök (Catoctin Creek + GWAR). The latter spans a whole slew of unusual cask finishes—from Agricole rum (Barrell’s Seagrass) to maple syrup barrels (Dad’s Hat)—to gimmicks like rye cut with oolong tea instead of water (FEW’s Immortal 8) or a rye blend based on the Fibonacci sequence (Stellum’s new Fibonacci Blend #1). Luckily, sometimes these attention-catchers are more than just gimmicks. For example, Catoctin’s latest Ragnarök bottling focused on rye aged with unusual woods. After chief distiller Becky Harris oversaw the aging, the GWAR team sampled all the variations. “They decided what they wanted their Ragnarök to be,” Scott Harris says. “They ended up with sugar maple and cherrywood,” and a bottling that shows gentle vanilla and hazelnut tones.
Full (Crop) Circle
Interestingly, rye—and the whiskey made from it—seems to have come full circle. The same grain that was brought to the U.S. from Europe now has returned to Europe and beyond, propelled by the juggernaut of American rye.
“I wouldn’t have predicted this,” says Katz. “The interest in rye has leapfrogged beyond just the U.S. I’m seeing really interesting rye whiskey from Great Britain, Scandinavia, Australia. Increasingly, because rye is such a hardy grain to grow, the interest in it seems like it will only increase. I’m excited by the broadening of rye.”
Of course, America isn’t done pushing the boundaries of rye, either. For example, over the past several years Katz has been working with Horton rye, a heritage grain popular in the 1800s, which had been nearly lost.
The crop started from a tiny packet of 10 rye seeds procured from the National Seed Repository in Idaho and was grown under lab lights at Cornell University’s Agricultural School. By 2015, New York Distilling had enough to distill their first batch; by 2017, enough to make 100 barrels. In 2023, then aged around seven years, it will be released as a “significant and joyous” addition to the distillery’s lineup.
“This whiskey has never touched human lips that are alive today, and that is astoundingly exciting,” Katz says. What are the origins of this heritage grain? “It was originally developed in—wouldn’t you know it? — what is present-day Rye, New York.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!