Rye Whiskey Comeback

rye whiskey comebackPalettes are becoming more prone to bold flavors, and with that, rye whiskey is making a comeback. Unlike its smoother, sweeter counterparts including bourbon and scotch, rye is bolder in the same way rye bread has a distinct flavor compared to other bread choices.

Price also plays a role in rye whiskey’s comeback. New York Times writer, Rosie Schaap notes, “I also think that whiskey drinkers are, like me, simply responding to rye’s many inherent virtues, including budget-friendliness.” (Quoted in “There’s a Reason that Rye Is Having a Moment.”)

Rye’s Roots

Rum was favored in colonial America, but the Revolutionary War brought its import to a halt, and Americans turned to a product made with local ingredients. According to Imbibe.com’sThe Comeback Kid – Rye Whiskey,” Americans turned to distilleries in western Pennsylvania and Maryland that had been producing whiskey distilled from abundant rye grain.

That was all fine and good until an excise tax was imposed on whiskey in 1791, ultimately leading to the Whiskey Rebellion, an insurrection that threatened the stability of the new nation and ultimately led to President George Washington to call for governors to send militia to enforce the tax.

With Pennsylvania in the cross-hairs of the enforced tax, many distilleries relocated to Kentucky, and corn-based bourbon production began taking center stage.

Today, many Kentucky distilleries produce both bourbon and rye since they use the same ingredients, simply in different proportions. Rye whiskey contains at least 51 percent rye, and bourbon contains at least 51 percent corn.

Liquor.com notes (in Rye Whiskey 101) that you’ll easily taste the difference between the two by comparing a Manhattan made with rye and one made with bourbon.

Rye Whiskey Resurgence

After the Prohibition’s repeal, tastes changed, and consumers leaned toward bourbon with rye taking on a reputation of cheap booze. Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill distillery said, “We spill more bourbon in a day than we sell rye in a year.” (Quoted in Imbibe.com’s article.) Heaven Hill produces three brands of rye including Rittenhouse, Pikesville Supreme, and Stephen Foster.

Although rye may be a drop in the bucket for the distillery, its Rittenhouse was named “North American Whiskey of the Year” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition a few years ago.

“Historically, rye whiskey has been the ultimate expression of classic American whiskey style, and we at Heaven Hill Distilleries were one of only three remaining producers to keep the style alive during the lean years when rye was overshadowed by bourbon and Scotch and Irish Whiskeys,” said Kirstin Jackson, brand manager, Rittenhouse Rye Whisky. “As the desire for a broader selection of styles and flavors grows in the American Whiskey category, it is only natural that rye whiskey should reclaim its former position of prominence, because it is generally regarded as the most flavorful of the United States whiskey styles. This award properly affords rye whiskey the recognition it deserves, and for Rittenhouse to have bested such highly-regarded competition is a tribute to the fact that things don’t necessarily have to be ‘new and improved’ to be judged the very best.” (Quoted in Heaven Hill’s press release.)

Classic Rye Cocktail

With rye whiskey making its comeback, here’s a cocktail not to be overlooked: The Sazerac.

The Official Sazerac Cocktail

  • 1 cube sugar
  • 1½ ounces (35ml) Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon
  • ¼ ounce Herbsaint
  • 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
  • Lemon peel

Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice.

In a second Old-Fashioned glass, place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube.

Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar.

Empty the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint.

Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.

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