The explosive rise of rye whiskey shows no signs of slowing down, building ever-more momentum and drawing ever-more attention. That growth comes with valuable added shelf space at the store, not to mention behind the bar. And it's that latter point which is crucially important for understanding where all this love for rye whiskey began.
According to the 2015 year-end statistics recently released by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), rye whiskey had the largest volume increase for any major spirit category tracked. Volume was up 19.5 percent year on year, adding to a now six-year stretch, which has seen volume increase a staggering 662 percent, from 88,000 to 671,000 cases sold.
While that still represents just 3.3 percent of overall American whiskey sales, the monumental rate of increase speaks for itself. So, how did rye whiskey go from an entirely overlooked niche, to phenomenal, unfettered expansion? Well, for any whiskey drinker who loves knocking back a good rye, whether neat or in a cocktail, it's time to say thanks to your favorite bartenders and mixologists, because they're the ones who truly got the rye ball rolling.
Eddie Russell, along with his father Jimmy, is Wild Turkey's master distiller, and he's been working with the brand since 1981. That much hands-on experience tends to produce a person who's not easily caught off guard by industry developments, yet rye's abrupt popularity surge shocked him. "It's the biggest surprise of my career," Russell said during a visit to the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
In 2008, Wild Turkey produced 5,000 cases of rye. By 2014, they put away 80,000 cases for aging, which would have previously been enough to fuel the entire category. In addition to their standard rye, and their 101-proof rye, Wild Turkey also produces Russell's Reserve 6 year old rye, and a new Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Rye release, which debuted last fall.
"Really, what started growing it was mixologists."
While rye's proliferation was a huge surprise for Russell, he knows where the surge originated: "Really, what started growing it was mixologists."
Hearing that, a question was then fielded to Jim Beam's master distiller, Fred Noe, during a subsequent visit to the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont, Kentucky. "You're dead on about that," confirmed Noe. "That's where people learn, getting into bars ... The mixology folks are the ones who are bringing it back, they're introducing people to it who would never have touched it."
It's a familiar domino effect. Try a cocktail at a bar with a new ingredient you've never had. Ask what it is, and where you can find it. Make the drink at home. Meanwhile, more bars begin serving up the same popular spirits. Voila. A trend is born.
"People are revisiting stuff from the past. Rye was popular years and years ago. I think it kind of comes around, people are discovering it, and enjoying it ... it's cool to drink some of the cocktails they make with it," continued Noe.
"[Whiskey brands] were used to selling to whiskey drinkers," says JP Fetherston, head bartender of Washington, D.C.'s newly reopened Columbia Room. "Then all of a sudden cocktail drinkers came along and said 'you know what we'll take all of this ... and you need to make way more of it too!'"
Woodford Reserve's rye whiskey just hit the shelves in 2015, and moved immediately to highly-allocated status due to high demand. They started by distilling only 9,000 cases worth per year as they built stocks up for the first three years of production, and while the brand won't reveal "forward-looking numbers," they have certainly amped up those figures substantially.
"We're making a lot more," says master distiller Chris Morris, while confirming the brand's desire to "be a major player in rye." He also acknowledges the mixology and trend-appeal of rye. "Because it's so young and trendy, we're finding it more with young consumers, too," he says.
All of this interest in rye whiskeys on the whole has also created room for more offshoots to the category. Look no further than "rock & rye," a resuscitated historical sub-category of its own, which combines rye whiskey with rock candy and is, of course, wonderful for cocktails.
New York Distilling Company produces Mr. Katz's Rock & Rye, a 32.5 percent ABV spirit made with rye whiskey they distill and age for 12 months, along with rock candy sugar and additional flavoring ingredients such as cinnamon, dried orange peels, and bing cherries.
"We're cocktail people making spirits for cocktails," says founder Allen Katz. Based on what we know about how the rye whiskey trend started, that's like whiskey Inception, or something.
"You can use this on its own, you can use it as the focal point of a cocktail with a two ounce pour," he says. "You can use it as a modifier with a quarter ounce or half ounce pour. It has a very versatile cocktail application."
Katz isn't the only one selling a rock & rye though. Also based in New York, Cooper Spirits has two available, Hochstadter's Slow & Low, first released in 2012 and bottled at 84 proof, and the new-to-market Hochstadter's Slow & Low 100 Proof Rock & Rye, offered at a robust strength and made with 8-year-old rye. Their own flavoring formula, used in both editions, includes navel oranges, raw honey, rock candy, and "Angostura-style" bitters.
As whiskey companies have begun to both adjust to and capitalize on a class of more well-informed consumers, it's also fascinating to see, in real time, their responsiveness to bartenders. Brands are vividly recognizing the role of those hardworking folks behind the bar in spurring on drinking trends.
"We feel pretty powerful when we realize we changed something a little," says Fetherston. "We got these people who were making no rye to make all this rye again, out of the blue. It's pretty cool. We feel pretty important."