Rye is not a shy grain when it comes to flavour. It’s bursting with complexity and intensity, a veritable cocktail of pungent fruit and spice flavours. No wonder America’s cocktail juggernaut has taken rye from near-obscurity in 2005, to be the king of cocktail flavours. Under mass-spectrometry, rye whiskey’s flavour chemistry is the most complex of all cereals. Hence, it needs judicious use when added to flavour Bourbon, Canadian whisky and cocktails. It’s a premium grain when it comes to whiskey economics too. Compared to corn the cost is significantly more, and rye yields less alcohol per bushel. It’s also a notoriously tricky grain to handle during production, as its abundance of beta-glucans cooks into a sticky mash that is also prone to foaming during fermentation, as well as frothing inside the column beer still during distillation. Distillers have to work harder to coax this small grain to give up its flavour.
Rye has a long spirit history. At the dawn of potable distillation, German free cities distilled this grain into the aqua vitae, later called korn schnapps. The Dutch moderated the grain’s stronger flavour by compounding the rye spirit with malted barley and juniper cones to produce genever or Holland's gin since the early 17th century. England has added rye to make their gin since the mid-18th century. Rye’s popularity was also noteworthy among Baltic Sea countries. By 1860 Sweden had 5,882 distilleries mashing more than 760,000 bushels of rye. Denmark had 2,500, while Russia and Poland had some 8,000 distilleries between them. Rye was their most popular grain to make rye whiskey
At the same time in the United States, rye whiskey dominated spirit production and whiskey consumption. Before the Revolutionary War, rum had a stranglehold on American drinkers. After the War, rye shot to ascendancy when molasses cost 40 per cent more than grain. As America’s population increased, new farmlands expanded, grain became plentiful and increasingly more economical. As much as 90 per cent of the spirits consumed in 1810 was whisky and three-quarters was rye. The remainder was Western whiskey, soon to be named Bourbon.
America had been commercially distilling rye whiskey since Emmanuel Downing opened his Salem Massachusetts rye distillery in 1648. American rye can also claim the world’s first distinctive regional whisky styles, Old Monongahela Rye from southwestern Pennsylvania in the 1830s and Old Roanoke Virginian rye in the 1840s.
After the Civil War, Bourbon superseded rye as the western farmlands of the Ohio Valley, and America’s vast prairies became the corn belt producing huge volumes of cheap corn. Corn made America’s mid-west the distilling centre of the world by the 1880s. However, rye remained a ‘challenger whiskey’ up until Prohibition, with 1898 and 1902 rye out-selling Bourbon twice.
This was before the 1906 Pure Food Act, where most American whiskies were rectified, blended and flavoured by distillers to taste like rye or Bourbon, with straight ryes and Bourbons in the minority.
After Prohibition and through the second half of the 20th century, rye held less than 20 per cent share to Bourbon. Today, straight rye is only two per cent, compared to straight Bourbon, but climbing at a fast rate.
Rye is not only rebounding in production at America’s six largest distilleries, and at more than a hundred micro-distilleries, but rye whisky is also in production across the world. Whisky-producing countries also differ in rye definitions from, ‘possess the aroma, taste and character.'
Regardless of the varying national production standards and definitions, rye has always been a popular flavour for whisky.