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Why You Should Be Drinking Rye Whiskey Right Now

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This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene takes a look at rye's past, present, and future.


Rye is the bad boy of grains — it's the spirit that prompts guests to wince when I pop the cap during whiskey events that I'm asked to host. "No way, bourbon only," said one woman to me recently. I couldn't convince her to even take a wee taste. "Bastard," I said, shaking my head.

I meant the whiskey.

That's what rye's been called: That bastard whiskey. It's big, bold, and spicy when made well, delivering a slight and fascinating burn, something you'll turn to again and again, a bit like Donald Trump on TV and a lot like spicy curry with hints of sweet. I drink rye for that kind of excitement: a "ping" on my tongue followed by zest and flame that cuts through a mixed drink like a shooting star. Not enough people drink rye anymore, but in the early-1900s America lip-smacked for rye. Millions of gallons worth of it.

The United States of Rye

Before Prohibition, rye was the most popular grain American farmers distilled with regularity — it's a cinch to grow and very resilient. Farmers fermented and distilled surplus grain, a cheaper proposition than transporting heavy whole grains and a better option than rot. Pittsburgh was ground zero for a style called Mongelahela, a powerhouse of a rye made with 100 percent of the grain. Five thousand stills were distilling Monongahela rye by 1780, and by 1808, the Allegheny region of Pennsylvania alone was "producing half a barrel of whiskey for every man, woman, and child living in America," according to the folks at the newly opened Wigle Distillery (the first distillery in Pittsburgh post-Prohibition).

George Washington capitalized on the whiskey action, too — double-fisting it, truth be told. He produced rye at Mount Vernon while taxing whiskey distillers at the same time. When General Washington sent troops into Pennsylvania to collect whiskey taxes in 1791 — the first tax imposed on a domestic product in America — he sparked the Whiskey Rebellion. This reached a heated climax in 1794, when Washington sent 13,000 troops to suppress an angry insurgency. Tax inspectors were tarred and feathered. Heated indeed.

The whiskey tax was repealed in 1802, after which America got really drunk on whiskey (until Prohibition came and shut the party down). Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky produced millions of gallons by the late 1800s, each state claiming a unique and celebrated style of whiskey. Old ads and other historical documents refer to Maryland whiskey as a more smooth and round style than Pennsylvania Monongahela whiskies, for example. No one can be sure though — not enough 19th-century hooch remains for anyone to hold taste-tests.

Prohibition devastated the rye industry and pushed Americans to adjust their palates towards the softer, bootlegged Canadian whiskies. After repeal, the last remaining rye drinkers sank into the dark corners of mangy old bars while a new generation celebrated with colorful cocktails. The folk song "Rye Whiskey" by Tex Ritter sums up the image of the unfashionable 1936 post-prohibition rye imbiber, in a nine-stanza song with a hard-luck, down-and-out rye theme:

Producers are keeping the Americana spirit alive with enough luscious ryes to keep us all happy.

Her parents don't like me they say I'm too poor/
They say I'm unworthy to enter her door/
It's a whiskey rye whiskey rye whiskey I cry/
If I don't get rye whiskey, well I think I will die

It's Time for Rye to Shine Again

Rye is surging back, along with all whiskey, and it shows no signs of a slow-down. Micro-distillers like Wigle Distillery in Pennsylvania, Lyon Distilling in Maryland, and New York Distilling in Brooklyn all released new ryes within the past year, while Michter's and Pikesville — both originally Pennsylvania and Maryland trademarked brands, respectively — found new homes in Kentucky, where producers are keeping the Americana spirit alive with enough luscious ryes to keep us all happy. Michter's new whiskey-making equipment installation in Kentucky is in fact one of the largest independent whiskey distillery installations in the U.S. in decades. If you are a rye fan, or want to be, I recommend collecting bottles from each of these places, details of which are laid out below.

But first things first. The rules for when a spirit can be called a rye and the bottle guidelines are the same as those for a bourbon, with one crucial difference: Instead of using at least 51 percent corn as the base grain, distillers substitute rye. Here are some other parameters an American whiskey-maker must follow in order to call it rye on the bottle:

· It must be aged in new, charred oak barrels

· It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 percent abv)

· It must be put into the barrel at no higher than 125 proof (62.5 percent abv)

· It must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40 percent abv)

· "Straight" rye must be aged at least two years. If it is aged less than four years, the bottle should carry an age statement. If a bottle labeled "straight rye" lists no age, it should be at least four years old. Many distillers who release bottles of rye aged more than four years will tell you that, though, even if they don't have to.

5 Great Bottles of Rye to Try

I own each of these ryes in my own home (except for the Wigle, which is newly released), all of which deliver slightly different tastes and personalities. Put them on ice, make a cocktail with them, or serve them neatly when the weather starts to cool. Better yet, collect all of them and hold a rye tasting party.

New York Distilling Ragtime Rye

Allan Katz, founder of New York Distilling Co. in Brooklyn, recently released this straight rye whiskey with a mashbill of 72 percent rye, 16 percent corn, and 12 percent malted barley. The rye is specifically grown for this expression by a family farm in the Central Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Because Katz is a cocktail-making enthusiast as well as whiskey-maker, he makes his spirits with mixed drinks in mind: Try this in your own version of a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. I'm looking forward to years of great spirits being produced out of New York Distilling — stop by for a tour when you are visiting NYC. | Approximately $44; www.nydistilling.com

Image credit: Facebook

Pikesville Rye

Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky now produces this historic Maryland brand whose roots date back to the late 1800s. When Maryland whiskey production came to a close in 1980, Heaven Hill kept the brand alive, taking the brand to its own facilities in Kentucky and producing the rye for a local market. Pikesville will be available to the American public this fall to meet the demand of thirsty rye drinkers nationwide. This six year-old premium rye is refined and elegant. The six years aging process softens the rye spice, making it a fantastic first step for those looking to explore the style. Try this whiskey alongside New York Distilling's Ragtime Rye (above) to really understand how different distilleries can tease so many different characteristics out of a rye whiskey. | Approximately $49.99; www.Pikesvillerye.com

Image credit: Official Site

Michter's US*1 Kentucky Straight Rye

I've won over so many people with this rye I've stopped counting. I first discovered this rye many years ago when I started putting it into blind tastings at the Flatiron Room in New York City. Time and time again my guests would select this whiskey. I'd mix and match bourbons and ryes to accentuate the different aromatics, and even hard-core bourbon enthusiasts were pleasantly surprised to select this as their favorite. "Huh. Rye?" they'd say. Here's how I served it a couple of weeks ago for some guests at a private shindig: Pour some Michter's Rye over ice, stir until chilled, and then squeeze orange oil from the peel of an orange into it. Drop the peel into the whiskey and stir again. You'll be delighted with the simplicity and beauty of nothing but orange peel and this rye. Also check out a few other Michter's releases: The US*1 Barrel Strength Rye, a 10-year-old rye, and even a 25-year-old rye. | Approximately $49.99; www.michters.com

Image credit: Official Site

Lyon Maryland Free State Rye

Cheers to fine folks at the Lyon Distilling Co. in St. Michaels, Maryland for making the first rye in Maryland since 1972! The microdistillery opened in December of 2013, and proudly poured its first batch of barrel-aged Maryland Free State Rye at last month's Tales of the Cocktail conference. (The rye is named after Maryland's refusal to pass state enforcement laws in support of the National Prohibition Act.) You can almost taste notes of all-nighters, hard work, and incredible passion that went into making the whiskey — a social terroir, if you will. If you are looking for something more tangible than that, notice the slight peppers, caramels, and vanillas that Lyon has managed to tease out of the small stills and one-gallon barrels — that's about 1/53 the size of a typical Bourbon barrel, by the way. And act fast, these guys will sell out of the stuff in a jiff. | Approximately $75; www.lyondistilling.com

Image credit: Facebook

Wigle Monongahela Rye

Named after defiant farmer, distiller, and tax resister Phillip Wigle, who was sentenced to hang for treason in 1795, the Wigle distillery (pronounced Wiggle) will release an organic straight Monongahela style rye this week, the first Monongahela created in the Allegheny region since Prohibition. The family-owned and operated distillery hopes to invigorate the American palate with a big, bold rye and showcase true Pennsylvania terroir. Meredith Grelli, Wigle's co-owner, says, "What Scotch is to Scotland, what bourbon (traditionally) is to Kentucky, Monongahela rye is to Western Pennsylvania." Order the whiskey directly from the site and enjoy the notes of American history. | Approximately $50; www.wiglewhiskey.com

Image credit: Official Site

Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.

Lead and Interstitial Images: Shutterstock


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