“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
American rye whiskey has been with us from the very beginning. After his presidency, George Washington famously made the whiskey at his distillery at Mount Vernon. In a note to his nephew in 1799 he wrote, ‘Two hundred gallons of whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.”
Also, consider: it was the favoured drink of cowboys and all kinds of adventurers, barflies and scoundrels as America expanded westward; while back east, it was so predominant that different regions had their own style. (See: Pennsylvania rye, for instance, which was known for its high rye content, and Maryland rye, known for having corn in the mash.)
It is the whiskey style that many now-classic cocktails were originally created with, long before Bourbon became the ubiquitous tipple. Then, like disco or mohawks, it fell out of fashion. Then urban sophisticates, tastemakers, and influential bartenders took up the gauntlet and spearheaded a full-on renaissance, touting it for its uniquely peppery notes as well as its authentic links to history. Interest around the country, and the world, was piqued. Then stock ran out. Today there’s no slowing down the growth and demand.
“Just a few years ago rye whiskey sold less than 100,000 cases. In 2018, we are expecting it to crack the million-case mark.
"You would have to go back before Prohibition to find a time when Americans enjoyed rye whiskey so much,” said Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
“This rapid growth is attributable to several factors. Among them are consumer fascination with classic cocktails, the overall premiumisation trend in whiskeys, and the revelations about the role rye whiskey played in American history, As producers worked to keep up with the Bourbon boom, rye fell off their list of priorities until they were blindsided by the sudden burst in demand, which came on full throttle around 2008. To hear it from Wild Turkey master distiller Eddie Russell, it was a direct effect of the classic cocktail renaissance across the United States.
“During those years between about 2008 and 2011, demand often outstripped supply because many producers didn’t forecast that there would suddenly be this demand for something that had pretty much all but fallen out of favour with most whiskey drinkers,” said Russell. “At Wild Turkey, we are lucky to have the ultimate prognosticator in my dad Jimmy, who anticipated that demand, and since 2009 Wild Turkey has been able to meet increased demand with both Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve Ryes.”
Wild Turkey 101 Rye has developed a cult following of sorts, maintaining its status as a favourite among bartenders and whiskey consumers. Russell points out without irony that most of his son Bruce’s friends prefer spicier rye over sweeter Bourbon.
“Rye has followed behind Bourbon in the renaissance of American whiskey. The case could be made that rye whiskey and Bourbon gave rise at identical times but under different circumstances,” said Susan Wahl, Heaven Hill’s group product director for whiskey portfolio. “At least with the case of Rittenhouse, its foothold was the cocktail boom when virtually no one had ryes in their portfolio. Rye was predominantly the featured whiskey when classics were originally developed and certainly through the decades immediately following prohibition. In that respect Rittenhouse was fortunate.” But, she notes, American whiskey overall took hold largely as a result of the interest in super-premium products among aficionados, a trend that quickly trickled down to the mainstream.
It didn’t take long for small distillers around the United States to take note of the spirit’s popularity and dive into the rye game. Just one small thing, though: rye is incredibly difficult to produce, so the decision to make it is a commitment, to say the least.
Case in point: Jacob Tschetter, Hudson Whiskey brand associate, speaks of the rye stains on the ceiling over the mash tun in the distillery. The mash is so sticky and unwieldly, he explained, that it traps so much carbon dioxide that sometimes a blast of the gas will shoot off and stain the surface above, inflicting a war wound, of sorts, a reminder of the struggle to achieve victory. A victory it is: Hudson rye, started while Tuthilltown was still evolving. Up until 2015, the distillery, which was the first in New York to make post-Prohibition whiskey, didn’t even have a proper rick house.
Today they have five, each holding 100,000 proof gallons. Their single barrel rye took the coveted Chairman’s Trophy in the highly regarded Ultimate Spirits Challenge. Hard work does indeed pay off. Or consider Adam Spiegel, owner and head whiskey maker at Sonoma Distilling Company in California, who’s so deeply committed to rye that he releases seasonal expressions along with his flagship each year. Those seasonal products, which arrive each spring, have included specialties like cherrywood rye. He works with a local smoker to smoke the barley, which makes up 10 per cent of the mash bill. (The remaining is 80 per cent rye and 10 per cent wheat.) Adam takes rye to another level. Call it Rye Whiskey 2.0.
“We wanted to design it to be like a Manhattan,” he explained. “We want it to have that dry maraschino flavour on the finish, we don’t want it to be smoky.” The smoke just makes itself known on the finish.
No discussion of rye whiskey in America would be complete, however, without a tip of the hat, a very big tip of a very big hat, to the late Dave Pickerell, who worked as a consultant to countless craft distilleries around the United States after establishing his authority as master distiller at the iconic Maker’s Mark distillery for 14 years. Pickerell tragically passed suddenly at the beginning of November, and he leaves behind him a legacy of remarkable ryes that he helped create, like George Washington’s Rye Whiskey, a historically accurate reproduction of the spirit our Founding Father made in a historically accurate reproduction of his original distillery at Mount Vernon. He also developed Boss Hog (and others) for Whistle Pig and a thoughtfully designed Hillrock Double Cask Rye from Hillrock Estate Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, two hours north of Manhattan.
“Dave knew the cocktail resurgence was ahead and understood what this could mean for rye, America’s original spirit. During this time, rye was no longer being distilled in large amounts within the US. Dave set out to change this. He was truly a visionary in breaking down traditional barriers and pushing the category,” said Jeff Kozak, CEO of Whistle Pig, “Without his vision, rye would still be on the bottom shelf.”
He notes the various ways he shattered the norms: blurring the Canadian and American whiskey worlds by looking past Americans stigmas of Canadian whiskey and into adding it in particular measurements to provide body, getting creative with barrel finishing, and, perhaps most excitingly, exploring terroir.
Pickerell modelled Whistle Pig’s grain production and distillation after a traditional winery and brought in the concept of Triple Terroir.
“It was our water, our grain and our barrels produced from oak on the farm.”
When it comes to small producers, there is power in numbers. Nowhere is that more clear than in New York. During the past few years, several distillers have formed an alliance, of sorts, and created what is virtually a new American whiskey category: Empire Rye, complete with local government support and endorsement. Several tastings and activities are now part of Rye Week, an official designation To earn the seal on the bottle that indicates the category, the whiskey must mashed, fermented and distilled at a single New York State distillery, be made with at least 75 per cent New York-grown grain, distilled to no more than 160 proof, aged for a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels at not more than 115 entry proof. It can also be a blended Empire Rye, as long as each component is 100 per cent pure Empire Rye.
It’s a forward-thinking and inspired idea and, if distillers would organise, it could predict the future way of American whiskey if, similarly, distillers of a particular area could come together and determine a broad regional style. But in the case of New York, Empire Rye has a foothold in the past: it pays tribute to the rich legacy of distilling in New York that vanished during Prohibition.
“The climate in New York state for distilling and for beverage alcohol is perhaps the most progressive in the country today and that’s with legislation and gubernatorial support as well as with great enthusiasm and support from the Brooklyn borough president,” said Allen Katz, founder of New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn and a key figure in moving the initiative along. (His commitment to rye is, to put it simply, hard-core. New York Distilling has been producing Ragtime Rye for the past six years and doesn’t sell anything less than three years old.) “In less than a decade, it has created an environment for interaction, not just geographically, but from the standpoint of diversity in production in general. There’s a range in interest and creativity in everything from distilling to ageing (time, type and size of barrel).”
One aspect of production is the choice of raw ingredients, and New York distillers are fiercely committed to sourcing local grains, working with farmers and going so far as to foster the production of rare heritage grains.
“It’s vital that when we’re talking about rye, we’re not just talking about it from an historic standpoint, or cocktails, but from an agricultural standpoint,” Katz said. “For generations, rye has been a reasonable, cost-effective cover crop. This is the lynchpin from a state-wide standpoint. We’re enthused to support agriculture as a distiller.”
That agriculture is front and centre for Tschetter of Hudson Whiskey, too. “Empire Rye really showcases what New York is, what New York terroir is,” he said. “This is all about having parameters and getting amazing spirit. It’ll be great to see where the Empire Rye movement goes in five or ten years as more distillers grow and expand.”
Colin Spoelman, co-owner and head distiller of Kings County Distillery, which started in 2010, made a few barrels of rye in the early days and was happy with the outcome, but didn’t see it as a viable product, because the yield was so low. Nicole Austin, distiller at the time, worked with Dave Pickerell to develop a way to change that. Today their rye, which qualifies as an Empire Rye, is one their flagship products.
“We’ve always made more rye year after year, but amounts increased marginally. It’s nothing like this year: we’re distilling 25 tons, which will take two months. It’s the most desired whiskey of the moment,” Spoelman said. Having been a career industry-watcher for years, he admits to not being able to predict the intensity of the rye revival that we’re seeing. “I should have known better. About 70 per cent of commercial rye was coming from MGP and the remainder from Kentucky, which probably has pretty high corn content. Pennsylvania rye had long since completely died out. There’s no continuity for any American regional style the way there is for Kentucky Bourbon or Tennessee whiskey. I feel a responsibility and opportunity to bring that back for New York in a way that commercial distillers maybe not be able to.”
Spoelman, a thinking-person’s distiller, speculates on what might be coming down the line. “There’s still the perception that rye doesn’t need to age. I think that’s natural because there hasn’t been a legit inventory of aged rye available,” he muses. “Nobody really has an idea what aged rye tastes like because people never had it in stock.”
Time will tell.