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Rye Whiskey

America's whiskey of choice at the turn of the century, Rye whiskey lost its luster following Prohibition. Today, bartenders and whiskey fanatics have rediscovered Bourbon's spicy cousin, fueling more of a quarter percent surge in Rye whiskey sales in the US in 2011.


Rye whiskeys have a long and storied history in the United States. However, back in colonial days, rum was the favored tipple. When the revolution brought the rum trade to a halt, thirsty Americans sought spirits made closer to home and why Rye Whiskey became our nation's whiskey of choice. Even George Washington distilled rye at his home in Mount Vernon, and it was at the center of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.

For more than a century, rye whiskey production centered in and around Pennsylvania and Maryland, areas where large numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants settled and applied their collective knowledge and expertise in distillation. Distinct styles emerged. The sweeter, more robust Monongahela rye-also called Pennsylvania rye-was sold under brand names such as Schenley, Old Jupiter, Good Old Guckenheimer's and Large (which evolved into Old Overholt, a brand still available today). Maryland ryes, such as Sunnyside, Susquehanna and Maryland Union Club Rye (actually made in New York City), tended to be brighter in flavor, with a grassy character. When Prohibition shuttered the nation's distilleries in 1920, drinkers turned to whatever was available, such as the lighter-flavored Canadian whisky supplied by bootleggers. (Canadian whisky is still often called "rye," though very few Canadian brands are true rye whiskies.) By the time of repeal in 1933, tastes had changed and Rye had been considered an old man's drink. Following World War II, sales of rye whiskeys went into a protracted slump from Park Avenue to Skidrow, a decline that reflected the steady rise in popularity of soft-blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from U.S. bars.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, and only a few brands of rye remained, produced by bourbon distillers in Kentucky that made the venerable spirit almost as an afterthought. "We spill more bourbon in a day than we sell rye in a year," says Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill, a Bardstownbased distiller that makes two brands of rye: Rittenhouse (named "North America Whiskey of the Year in 2011 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition) and Trybox Series "New Make". Heaven Hill is not alone. Many of the major producers, which includes Jim Beam, Anchor Distilling, Campari America, Castle Brands and Capital Brands, now are marketing at least one label of rye.


Rye must be made with no less than 51% of rye (the typical balance is malted barley and corn). If your whiskeyloving clientele is looking for a singular taste experience, suggest they set their sights on American Straight Rye Whiskey. Depending on the recipe ("mash bill") smaller amounts of other grains, including wheat and corn are used. The addition of other grains in addition to rye appears to be a more recent addition to the standard recipe. The process begins with grinding the grains separately from the malt. After grinding, the grains are placed into a mash tank. The next step is to prepare the malt. Barley is kept between 50 and 60 degrees and steeped in water until it sprouts. After 10 to 14 days the roots should grow between 1/2 to 1 inches long. It is then kept moist and at a temperature less than 60 degrees and aerated until the sprouts develop. It is then heated to no more than 140 to 158 degrees and 2 to 3 percent moisture. The resulting product is called "maltose." After this roasting, the maltose is ground in preparation for adding it to the mash. The maltose contains enzymes which convert the unfermentable grain starch (from the rye and other grains) into fermentable sugar. Once inside the mash tank the unmalted mash is cooked by forcing steam up through the mash from the bottom of the tank. It is then cooled with cold water circulating inside coils. When cooled, the ground malt is added and the mixture is agitated. This converts the grain starch into fermentable sugar. The mash is then pumped through cooling pipes. This mash is now "distiller's beer." This is pumped into the still. The still separates the alcohol from the beer and it rises out of the top of the still into the condenser. Cold water is pumped into a jacket around the condenser which cools the vapor and creates "new whisky," which is 100 to 120 proof. This new whiskey is aged in charred white oak barrels. The charred liner absorbs impurities.

How is Rye Different?

Understand that not all whiskey is created equal. Bourbon's main ingredient is corn with a small portion of rye. The final proof is no more than 160 or it becomes "corn whiskey." Gin is made of the same materials and in the same manner as well, with one addition; juniper berries are boiled in the last distillation, imparting their peculiar flavor. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland and substitutes barley for rye. As you can see, every grain has a unique flavor that lends to each whiskey produced. Corn offers sweet candy corn notes whereas barley conjures dark cocoa and earth tones. Wheat is associated with sweet creamy texture and flavor, and rye offers heavy spicy notes.

The Rye Revival

Fueling its revival is the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the rise of the mixologist. As the earliest rendition of American whiskey, rye was used almost exclusively as the foundation of 19th century cocktails that called for whiskey. Now, bold, exuberant flavors of American ryes have again attracted a broad following. It's easy to understand why after a sip or two. The whiskeys are broad shouldered and have a lot of personality, a character no doubt molded from our collective national self-image. It takes a seasoned palate to forge past the alcohol hit to appreciate its sweet valleys, nutty woods and high spicy peaks. Today, Rye Whiskey is back, and back to such a degree that it's almost becoming a victim of its own success. Now whiskey aficionados, beverage writers, bartenders and mixologists can't get enough and their demand for Rye Whiskey is outgrowing its current inventory in restaurants and bars. However, Rye Whiskey has truly come full circle. For a spirit that has risen from the dead, the return of this bold and spicy American spirit, so closely tied to our history as a colony and then a country, is a welcome occurrence. None of us are old enough to remember the fall of rye, but we can all now take part in its return.

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