Rye whisky’s history goes hand in hand with the rise and fall of the classic cocktails it did so much to establish. After a turbulent ride, the spirit is now back in the hands of the discerning bartender and home cocktail enthusiast, but it has taken a circuitous route from its earliest origins in the United States where it is believed to pre-date the arrival of Scottish and Irish settlers by some 50 years and the production of bourbon by 100.
Its first surge in popularity came with the outbreak of the American Revolution and the end of the supply of cheap rum from the British Empire. Patriotic Americans were forced to look closer to home and developed a strong taste for locally made rye whisky, so much so that cocktail historian David Wondrich describes it as the ‘spirit of the Revolution’.
By the turn of the 20th century, the golden age of the cocktail had helped propel rye whisky to its peak where it accounted for just under 40 per cent of American whisky production. Thirsty patrons across the United States were consuming Sazeracs, Manhattans, and their many variants, and all these drinks were a platform for the complex nature of rye whisky to shine.
Many modern bartenders even go as far as to credit the complexities of rye with shaping the way classic cocktails have developed. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” says Chris Tanner, general manager at Silverleaf, London. “Were it not for phylloxera and the proliferation of rye whisky throughout America, we wouldn’t have the classic cocktails that they are so well suited for.”
However, the advent of Prohibition hit rye distillers particularly hard. With production being limited to those that were granted permits to manufacture whisky for medicinal purposes, the medical profession appeared to favour bourbon and only two rye distillers were allowed to continue. Combined with the steady supply of bootleg whisky, this had an impact on national tastes, and even after the repeal of Prohibition most investment focused on Kentucky and bourbon producers, leading rye into such steep decline that Old Overholt was the sole remaining national brand by the 1960s.
It took a change in the law and a change in fashion to reverse this. The rapid expansion of microdistilleries in the early 21st century and the revival of classic cocktail recipes propelled rye back onto the bars and shelves of the US and, shortly after, the rest of the world.
Bartenders were relieved and inspired, with many pointing to the broad spectrum of flavours the spirit can bring to a drink, and the differences it offers to the usually sweeter bourbon. Ally Shaw of The Gate in Glasgow explains, “We love to use rye in any whisky cocktail that normally calls for bourbon to give it an extra edge… its spicy flavour profile enables us to use it in different ways to Scotch whisky.” Rachel Reid, bar manager at Swift Borough, London, describes it as “a gamechanger in a cocktail”. For her, the full range of flavours such as banana, dark fruit, and butterscotch, as well as its distinctive peppery spice, can a bring an "unmatched" depth to a cocktail.
Others point to a cultural connection or love of specific flavours. For Siggi Sigurdsson, general manager at East London Liquor Company, the answer is simple: “I love working with rye because I’m Danish. I live for rye bread, so having something in liquid form that reminds me of my favourite bread just takes me back home right away.”
The Danish connection is also key to the team at Stauning, where co-founder Alex Munch remembers his first taste of (an American) rye whisky: “It was like going a round with Mike Tyson – a really feisty whisky.” Given that rye was already a large part of Danish culture, the connection seemed inevitable. Stauning's rye whisky is now one of many exceptional products available. When it comes to cocktails, the team like to keep it simple: drinks people know, that have stood the test of time, and that were made for rye.
Reid at Swift Borough employs a split base of rye whisky and applejack to create the rounded, lingering flavour of this peppery and caramel-rich recipe.
• 20ml Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond
• 30ml Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy
• 20ml Amaro Meletti
• 15ml Luxardo Antico
• 1 barspoon sugar syrup
• 2 dashes orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a chocolate coin.
Essentially a Bobby Burns with rye whisky in place of Scotch, and a traditional 'down and brown' recipe, Tanner at Silverleaf is quick to name it as one of his all-time favourites.
• 40ml Michter’s Rye
• 20ml Martini Rosso
• 7.5ml Bénédictine
• 1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and finish by expressing over the oil from a lemon twist.
Shaw of The Gate favours rye whisky for the Rave Revue to bring a spicy finish to what is otherwise a fruity, boozy cocktail.
• 20ml WhistlePig PiggyBack 6 Years Old
• 10ml Cocchi Americano
• 20ml rooibos tea-infused Suze
• 10ml RinQuinQuin à la Pêche
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass.
Invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Peychaud in 1830, the recipe originally called for Cognac until the phylloxera epidemic in Europe made this hard to obtain. The use of Oxford Rye Whisky’s first single cask expression, matured in a 30-year-old tawny port pipe, adds layers of raspberry, prune, and cinnamon to the clove and liquorice of the bitters.
• 60ml Oxford Rye Whisky Batch #009 The Tawny Pipe
• 1 barspoon sugar syrup
• 5 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
• Absinthe rinse
Rinse a rocks glass with absinthe and set aside. Combine the rye whisky, sugar syrup, and Peychaud’s bitters in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into the absinthe-rinsed glass and express the oil from a twist of lemon peel over the drink to finish.
Sadly not invented by (or even in honour of) Winston Churchill’s mother, the archetypal rye whisky cocktail probably did at least originate in the subtly named Manhattan Club, New York in the 1870s. The recipe is a time-honoured pattern that wears alterations well (try the Red Hook, with a barspoon of maraschino liqueur, or the Greenpoint, with a barspoon of yellow Chartreuse).
• 60ml Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond
• 30ml Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
• 2 dashes Abbotts bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with an amaretto cherry.
A Canadian twist on a Manhattan, this drink is usually made with rye-heavy Canadian whisky, but the East London Liquor Company’s London Rye makes an exceptional alternative.
• 60ml London Rye
• 5ml Fernet Branca
• 5ml maple syrup
• 3 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora glass and garnish with a twist of orange peel.
Stauning Rye Old Fashioned
After experimenting with traditional Danish ingredients to make Danish variants of classic cocktails, the team at Stauning decided to stick to the classics. A stick of liquorice on the side doesn’t do any harm, though.
• 60ml Stauning Rye
• 3 dashes Angostura bitters
• 1 barspoon sugar syrup
Muddle the sugar syrup and bitters to combine. Add the whisky and ice and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice and garnish with a lemon peel.
Coffee & Rye
The team at the East London Liquor Company bar love to experiment with its in-house rye whisky. This drink came from a desire to pair coffee and rye together, and starts by infusing 30g coffee beans in a 700ml bottle of rye whisky for 24 hours.
• 50ml coffee-infused London Rye
• 15ml tawny port
• 15ml Picon L’Orange
• 10ml amaretto
• 3 dashes pecan bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add a handful of ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora glass and finish by expressing over the oil from a lemon twist.