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Rye Whiskey Goes Boom

Around fifteen years ago, I was reading a mystery novel that took place in the 1970s, and one of the main characters was a rye drinker. In the story, his friends all drank vodka martinis or highballs and repeatedly poked fun of him. They mocked his old timey ways, said he was a couple of generations behind in his personal style. When I was reading about these characters, rye still wasn’t cool. Yet within just a couple of years, it was in such high demand, there was even talk of a shortage.

What happened in such a short space of time?

George Washington's Straight Rye Whiskey
The original American rye whiskey – George Washington’s Straight Rye Whiskey (image via Mount Vernon)

Before Prohibition, rye was one of, if not the, top native spirit of North America. The so-called “Noble Experiment” ultimately failed as a means of curtailing drinking, but it did succeed in causing massive damage to the American liquor industry, especially native whiskey. Grain crops suffered because of the farming crisis during the Great Depression, then, once crops could grow again, they were rationed for World War II. By the end of this period, most rye producers had either gone out of business or switched focus to producing other spirits. Rye also had the negative association with Rock and Rye – bad quality rye whiskey mixed with ginger rock candy – usually a dusty, cloudy mess relegated to sticky old bar bottles. Only a few brands, such as Old Overholt, survived with their tried and true rye offering, while other brands released a few cases a year just to satisfy a small market.

It didn’t help that, like the characters in that book, the majority of American drinkers from the 1950s to the 1990s gravitated toward lighter spirits, usually with pre-packaged mixers. The thing is, not everyone was content to drink vodka and colored corn syrup, and gradually, a new generation of drinkers and enthusiasts began seeking other outlets. Some time in the late 90s, the rise in popularity of single malt whiskeys was accompanied by a newfound interest in classic cocktails. If “whiskey” was called for in these recipes, chances are good the default whiskey was rye. Suddenly, everyone – professional cocktail bartenders and hobbyists alike – were snatching up bottles of the stuff trying to recreate these concoctions. Rye was suddenly flying off the shelves.

Large production whiskey producers such as Jim Beam, Michter’s and Wild Turkey started adding more rye to their output. Bonded rye, such as Rittenhouse, also rose in demand for use in cocktails. When the economy imploded in 2008, a “follow your dreams” mentality, particularly among ex-lawyers, investment bankers and physicians, coupled by slightly less restrictive access to distillation licences, drove the proliferation of craft spirits, particularly rye. The craft rye trend ricocheted back to the boardroom, inspiring large producers who previously hadn’t offered a rye to add one to their permanent lineup, such as Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek.

In cocktails, such as a classic Manhattan, its robust flavors add grip and dimension. However, it’s also appealing to drinkers who prefer a spicier, less rich version of bourbon when sipping neat. To be labeled as rye in the states, like bourbon is to corn, the mash must contain at least 51% rye, which is usually mixed with malted barley, corn and other grains, though some brands – such as High West, Smooth Ambler, Whistle Pig, Redemption and Corsair – optimize the spice factor by going for very high rye mash bills, some as much as 95 – 100%. The demand for high rye bourbon or or bourbon/rye hybrids – such as Bulleit Bourbon, Jefferson’s Chef’s Collaboration and High West Bourye (and Son Of) – even prompted Jim Beam to offer a version in their Signature Craft series.

Incidentally, the popularity of American rye has also done wonders for the Canadian rye industry, which until recently was relegated to only a couple of ubiquitous brands that for most palates, came off too sweet. For years, it fell into the “Best Kept Secret” category, but that’s changing. Producers such as Alberta, Wiser’s, Lock Stock & Barrel, Masterson’s and Collingwood are showing a new generation of rye drinkers there is more to offer besides Crown Royal. In fact, even Crown Royal is offering more than Crown Royal, with releases such as Northern Harvest, which recently was named Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Guide.

As for Rock and Rye? Pardon the cliché, but it ain’t your grandad’s nasty tipple anymore thanks to brands who have bottled styles tailored to modern palates such as Reilly’s, NY Distilling and Hochstadter’s.

The rye bubble doesn’t seem to be in danger of bursting any time soon, and with more craft distilleries opening every year, there’s no ominous threat of shortage. However, if craft producers are getting away with charging what had been full prices for half bottles, no doubt even economy and mass production brands will continue to raise prices simply because, as these things go, they can reach where others can’t. Too much of a good thing? Nah. Just means there’s always something new to taste.

Amanda Schuster

Amanda Schuster is a freelance writer, marketer and consultant and the Editor in Chief of online drinks site The Alcohol Professor. With advanced training in both wine and spririts, she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." She also makes jewelry and strives to find at least one weekday afternoon a month to play hooky and see a movie. She thinks the worst thing to happen to whiskey is the Pickle Back. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @winenshine

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