Rye whiskey has a bold, spicy flavor that burns just enough to make it interesting and provides the perfect kick to a cocktail. However, at one time, it was vastly less popular than its cousin, bourbon. Now, rye whiskey is in the midst of an impressive, overdue comeback.
What is Rye Whiskey?
Simply put, rye whiskey is whiskey that is distilled with rye, though it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. There are some very specific parameters that American distillers must follow in order to label their bottles of whiskey as rye. The following criteria have to be met:
- Minimum of 51% rye as the base grain
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Distilled to no more than 80% alcohol by volume or 160 proof
- Put into the barrel at no more than 62.5.% alcohol by volume or 125 proof
- Bottled at no more than 40% alcohol by volume or 80 proof
Things were a little different when rye first came onto the scene, though.
A Brief History of Rye Whiskey
As a grain, rye is very easy to grow and maintain, so it’s not a surprise that it became the most popular grain to distill around the 1800’s. It was widely produced in thenortheastern United States, specifically in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Kentucky. Each state produced millions of gallons of its own unique brand.
Rye whiskey was once so popular that when George Washington sent his troops to collect the whiskey tax in Pennsylvania in 1791, local brewers started the Whiskey Rebellion. This despite the fact that George Washington also distilled his own rye whiskey at his home in Virginia.
By 1794, locals had gotten so angry about the taxes the whiskey tax that more than 10,000 troops had to be sent in to help keep order. Back then, people loved their rye whiskey, which is probably why it was the first American-made product that the government tried to tax.
In 1802, the whiskey tax was repealed and rye whiskey’s popularity skyrocketed until prohibition. When prohibition ended, people’s tastes started to change. Milder, sweeter drinks were coming to the US from Europe. Rye whiskey’s spicy kick quickly fell out of favor.
The Comeback of Rye Whiskey
Since 2009, rye whiskeys have had somewhat of a revival. New distilleries are popping up all over New York as well as in the places where rye whiskey originated, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Kentucky. The volume of rye whiskey has boomed at 536% with more than a half million cases being sold in 2014. This is phenomenal, considering that it wasn’t that long ago when rye whiskey had all but disappeared.
How to Drink Rye Whiskeys
With the growth of the foodie scene and artisanal cocktails, a lot of people are rediscovering rye whiskey. Dozens of small distilleries are popping up all around the northeast while established brands like Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam have started making rye varieties.
There are a variety of ways to drink whiskey. For anyone who wants a drink with a strong kick, try it straight or on the rocks. It’s also a common ingredient in mixed drinks like an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or Sazerac.
Because of its rising popularity, a lot of whiskey bars and tasting rooms have started popping up recently. Each offers new ways to drink rye whiskey by making their own specialty mixed drinks. Some offer whiskey flights that consist of local offerings while others serve the old classics.
What’s Old is New Again
With its modern resurgence, distillers and bartenders are giving new life to a piece of history that goes back all the way to George Washington. Truly, Rye has finally returned to give a little more spice to the bar scene.