While bourbon ranks high on our list of global contributions—sitting pretty alongside apple pie and Apple computers—it’s not our nation’s most iconic sip. The prodigal son of American spirits is rye whiskey, and its return has drinkers and distillers excited like never before.
By Jenny Adams
“George Washington distilled rye whiskey at Mount Vernon,” laughs Scott Harris, co-owner of Catoctin Creek distillery in Virginia. “You can’t get much more American than that.” Harris is just one of many distillers stepping into the realm of rye today, aiding the comeback of a category that went from prolific in the late 1700s to near extinction by the 1970s.
In America’s first years, the farmland of the northeast was filled with rye. The weather was perfect for developing the grain, which, like the fledgling nation itself, was imparted with a spicy fire and assertive flavor. Sadly, Prohibition dealt a blow to many of the smaller distillers, and after the second World War, the country’s palate changed. This one-two punch caused a near terminal decline, and according to Jim Murray, spirits expert and author of the Whiskey Bible, “By the 1970s, rye was hanging on by its fingernails.
“Rye has this enormous personality,” Murray explains. “The populace’s tastes skewed milder, and 20 years ago, the distilleries still making rye were only doing so one week a year.”
Some credit the category’s resurrection to the classic cocktail movement and the new popularity of old drinks like the Manhattan and the Sazerac. Still others claim it was due to the recent cult following of Islay Scotch brands like Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Regardless, the demand for rye is back: According to the Distilled Spirits Council of America, the category grew 30 percent from 2008 to 2009, with similar growth projected for 2011.
“At one time, I felt alone in my love and appreciation of rye whiskey,” muses Murray. “I’m sure that in the coming year, I won’t feel so lonely.”
5 NEW RYES:
1. Redemption Rye White Rye
Redemption Rye’s new White Rye offers the same intensity of 95 percent rye grain in the mash as its previous labels. Launched in January 2011 from the distillery in Bardstown, Ky., it spends less than a day in charred oak barrels. The resulting spirit is extremely feisty, bottled at 92 proof with a nearly imperceptible hint of color. redemptionrye.com
2. Catoctin Creek Mosby’s Spirit
Named as a tribute to John S. Mosby, a Confederate guerrilla fighter in the Civil War, Catoctin Creek’s Mosby’s Spirit launches this April as one of the only certified organic ryes. This Virginia-distilled, un-aged dram is made from 100 percent rye, and the clear liquid warms with delightful cherry and peach notes that work beautifully in cocktails. catoctincreekdistilling.com
3. High West Double Rye!
High West is the world’s only ski-in gastro-distillery; located in Park City, Utah, it produces several ryes, like the acclaimed Rendezvous Rye, which earned a 95 rating from Malt Advocate founder John Hansell. This winter, High West announced Double Rye!, a blend of a 2-year-old and a 16-year-old rye. The combination lends a flavor of intense spice, followed by gin-esque hints of mint, eucalyptus and wildflower honey. highwest.com
With a whimsical name and a serious profile, Whistlepig released a total of 2,500 cases for 2011. It’s made from 100 percent rye and spends 10 years aging—the first half of the decade in new charred American oak, and the remaining five years in bourbon barrels. The double-barrel aging tempers the ginger allspice fire with a sweet caramel, honey notes on the back-end. whistlepigwhiskey.com
5. Leopold Bros. Maryland Style Rye
Producers of outstanding boutique spirits from absinthe to vodka, Todd and Scott Leopold launched an 86-proof Maryland Style Rye in January. Lighter than the classic Pennsylvania-style ryes, this label has 70 percent rye, 20 percent barley and a small quotient of corn to give it a sweet side and a flavor reminiscent of raspberry and strawberry jam. leopoldbros.com