history of rye whiskey

The History Of Rye Whiskey: Taste And Distinction

The term ‘rye whiskey’ can technically refer to both Canadian whisky, and American rye whiskey. People commonly ask ‘is Bourbon whiskey the same as rye?’, and the simple answer is no. Rye whiskey is made from a mash that is at least 51% rye, with other ingredients including barley and corn.

In order to be described as rye whiskey, the beverage must be distilled to less than 160 proof (around 80% ABV) and left to age in charred barrels.

What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Rye Whiskey? 

Bourbon must be distilled from at least 51% corn, whereas rye is made up of at least 51% rye. This makes bourbon a much sweeter drink, meaning it is more commonly consumed straight. Rye, however, has a spicier flavor that has made it the mixer of choice in classic cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.

Bourbon whisky must also be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and needs to be aging in a barrel at less than 125 proof. Once the spirit has been bottled, bourbon must be at least 80 proof, and it cannot have any additional flavors or colors.

Rye has all the same legal requirements, but is simply made of different stuff. That’s what gives it such a unique, deep flavor.

Rye Whiskey Was Born in America

Interestingly, rye whiskey’s history goes way back to the founding of America. Rum was initially the drink of the colonists. In 1750, there were at least 63 rum distilleries operating in just the state of Massachusetts – but unfortunately, this appetite for the beverage was affected by tax disagreements with England.

As a result, trade with the Caribbean dried up, meaning that Americans no longer had a supply of molasses, which is necessary to make rum. That’s where rye whiskey came in.

Rye was a very easy crop to cultivate in the Eastern states like Pennsylvania, and the mash that is used to create whiskey gradually included more rye. This remained popular for some time, but as the settlers began to move further inland, other crops became more easily accessible – including corn. This meant that bourbon quickly began growing in popularity.

In cocktails, however, nothing could quite beat rye. The sweetness of bourbon made it almost impossible to recreate the great tastes of classic cocktails, and so the rye industry remained strong.

1920 Changed Everything, Again
The year 1920 created particular problems for the entire spirit industry. This was the year that the Prohibition wrecked the industry and banned people from making and purchasing alcoholic beverages. Most rye distilleries were destroyed or repurposed, and after the prohibition was repealed, rye struggled to recover.

Even after World War II, rye was struggling. At the end of the 20th Century, rye was still the least popular kind of whiskey available on the market. It was only in the late 1990s that the industry began making a comeback. No longer was this a whiskey used only for making cocktails – distilleries began creating high quality rye whiskeys that would reach a wider market.

After rediscovering rye’s bold and unique flavor, rye has made a huge comeback. Jim Murray, the whiskey aficionado who writes The Whisky Bible, has skipped Scotch whiskey for more than two years, when writing his annual ‘best of list’ – and for 2017, he has announced that his Whisky of the Year is a rye, distilled by the grandson of the late, great Jim Beam.

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