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Best Rye Whiskey

 

The Fifty Best Rye Whiskey Tasting 2019


The Tasting:
The Fifty Best held a “blind” tasting of 23 American rye whiskies with a panel of 18 judges. Strict tasting rules were applied. The order of service was established beforehand by lottery. The ryes were poured into fresh glasses from new sealed bottles, and served at room temperature. Each of the ryes were judged and scored separately. Only ice water, unflavored unsalted crackers and chips were available to cleanse the palate.

The judges wrote down their impressions of each product on score sheets. The scoring was done on a 5-point system, with 5 as the highest. Double-Gold, Gold and Silver medals were awarded according to a set range of final point scores received from the judges. Overall, the scores were exceptionally high for this tasting. There were no Bronze medals awarded. The tasting notes below are summaries of the judges’ opinions, with all replicated commentary eliminated. The distilleries, states of origin, alcohol proof and other tidbits are identified for each brand. Following the tasting results is a brief history of rye whiskey.



DOUBLE GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey
(Buffalo Trace Distillery, KY) 90° prf

Nose: Caramel, nougat, cocoa, brittle, kettle corn, vanilla, cream, maple, honey, jam, candied apple, cherry, dried cherry, grilled figs, figs, apple, green apple, castile soap, toast, nut, cinnamon, spice, tree leaves, pine wood, oak.
Palate: Dark cocoa, nougat, buttery, creamy, brown sugar, honey, prunes, cooked cherries, cherry, coconut, apriums, strawberry, ripe fruit, green apple, mint, herbs, sugar-roasted nuts, toasted nuts, rye, wheat, toast, nutmeg, clove, orange spice, sweet spice, warm spice, spicy, pink peppercorns, black pepper, woody, oak, balanced, well-rounded, smooth.
Finish: Dark chocolate, mandarin, orange, dried cherry, grain, minty, cinnamon, spice, spicy, white pepper, peppery, balanced, complex, Sazerac cocktail preferred, nice, creamy, smooth, mild, warming, beautiful.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey



Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey
(Hotaling & Co., CA)
100% rye. Aged a minimum 4-1/2 years. 97° prf

Nose: Caramel, nougat, dark chocolate, cream, vanilla, honey, apricot, cherry, ripe plums, ripe bananas, dried apricot, plantains, toast, dry cocoa, coffee, black walnuts, sandalwood, wormwood, nutmeg, spice, musty, dark spiced rum, complex, fragrant.
Palate: Caramel, toffee, cherry, boysenberry, very ripe banana, quince, green apple, fig, cinnamon syrup, buckwheat, toast, nutty, clove, allspice, nutmeg, tarragon, jalapeño, sweet oak, heavy, rich, bold, complex.
Finish: Chocolate-covered cherry, cacao, vanilla, demerara syrup, honey, coffee, tobacco, oak, smooth, balanced, tasty, rich, elegant.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey



Wigle Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey
(Pittsburgh Distilling Co., PA)
Aged 4 years. 100° prf

Nose: Toffee, dark toffee, buttery, caramel, milk chocolate, vanilla, cherry, black cherry, white cherry, pineapple, herbal, mint, menthol, rye, rye bread, rye flair, grain, nutmeg, black coffee, smoky, rich wood, oak.
Palate: Toffee, caramel, cocoa, dark sugar, cream, whipped cream, vanilla, sweet vanilla, maple, raisins, prunes, cherry, plum, orange peel, fresh bread, toast, rye, rye flour, grain, potato, herbal, peppermint, cinnamon, peppery, coffee, tobacco, cigar, leather, tannin, smoke, smoky, oak, nicely balanced, scotch-like, rich, smooth, zesty, mouth-watering.
Finish: Caramel, creamy, maple, dried fruit, corn, ginger, anise, walnut, nutmeg, cloves, spicy, touch of pepper, peppery, oak, good heat, super dry, round, nice, smooth, very pleasant.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Wigle Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey



John Myer New York Straight Rye Whiskey
(Myer Farm Distillers, NY) 90° prf

Nose: Cocoa, cocoa powder, toasted marshmallow, light brown sugar, honeycomb, honey, cherry, berry, apricot, banana, ginger bread cake, ginger, wheat, grain, flour, sourdough, peppermint, light spice, straw, leather, earthy, new wood, oak, pine, armagnac.
Palate: Toffee, molasses, maple, honey, apricot, banana, dates, figs, dried fruit, orange peel, straw, grain, rye, nut, clove, nutmeg, spice, spicy, burnt toast, tobacco, earth, leather, woody, balanced, smooth, zesty, good rye character, classic.
Finish: Dates, fig jam, orange marmalade, citrus, sourdough, rye, vegetal, nutmeg, spicy, peppery, white pepper, mint, menthol, super dry, creamy, smooth, zesty.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



John Myer New York Straight Rye Whiskey



Old Overholt Bonded Straight Rye Whiskey
(KY)
Bottled-In-Bond. 100° prf

Nose: Toffee, cocoa, nougat, maple syrup, maple, buttery, slight vanilla, honey, honeycomb, plums, cherry, cherry juice, banana, strawberry, buckwheat, toast, almond, almond bark, spice, earthy, cedar, mild oak.
Palate: Caramel, maple, buttery, vanilla, honey, cherry, sweet apple, grain, rye grain, walnut, nut, mixed nuts, licorice, mint, cinnamon, dark baking spice, woodsy, oak, bourbon-like, nicely sweet, creamy, smooth.
Finish: Great toffee, caramel, honey, cherry, sweet corn, rye bread, licorice, cinnamon, nutmeg, spice, spicy, smoky, oak, pine, well rounded, well-balanced, soft, smooth, zesty.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Old Overholt Bonded Straight Rye Whiskey



MuckleyEye Straight Rye Whiskey
(Colts Neck Stillhouse, NJ)
Aged not less than 2 years. 90° prf

Nose: Toffee, brown sugar, light caramel, creamy, vanilla, honey, banana, ripe banana, pineapple, cherry, mixed berries, pear, apple cider, green apple, ginger, rye, grain, toast, wheat field, bamboo, nutmeg, spice, mixed spices, light char.
Palate: Caramel, sugar cane, burnt sugar, cola, honey, fresh dark plums, cherry, strawberry, ripe banana, apple, grapes, dates, dried fruit, herbal, herbaceous, anise, mint, hazelnut, nutty, rye, cinnamon, spice, white pepper, oak, creamy, smooth, fresh, zingy.
Finish: Dried fruit, brown sugar, creamy, walnut, nutty, rye, tobacco, vegetal, mint, spice, pepper, hint of black pepper, woody, oak, crisp, Manhattan cocktail preferred.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



MuckleyEye Straight Rye Whiskey



Cleveland Underground Rye Whiskey
(Cleveland Whiskey, OH)
Finished with black cherry wood. 90° prf

Nose: Caramel, toffee, dark chocolate, buttery, vanilla, honey, marmalade, cherry, apricot, dried apple, green apple, green apple skins, lemongrass, mint, chamomile, herbal, rye, clove, black pepper, leather, cedar.
Palate: Caramel, buttery, honey, apricot, strawberry, fig, orange zest, dried apple, sour green apple, minty, clove, hint of cinnamon, baking spice, great warm spice, spicy, peppery, wood, pinewood, cedar, oaky, charred barrel, beautiful dryness, zingy texture, creamy, smooth.
Finish: Cherry, plum, soft fig, clover honey, vanilla, grain, mint, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger spice, white pepper, light spice, creamy, soft, smooth, cozy, approachable, elegant, great.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Cleveland Underground Rye Whiskey



Booker's Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
(James B. Beam Distilling Co., KY)
Aged 13 years. 136.2° prf

Nose: Caramel, heavy caramel, toffee, milk chocolate, cocoa, strong maple, brown sugar, vanilla, honey, cherry, ripe cherries, macerated fruit, marmalade, apricot, floral, herbal, rye, olive brine, tobacco, oak, cedar, interesting, big, beautiful.
Palate: Dark chocolate, cherries, dark cherry, honey, rye, grain, cereal, sweet straw, walnuts, toasted nuts, sweet nuttiness, clove, huge zingy spice, spicy, salty, sea salt, maritime, smooth, rich, cognac, unique, delicious.
Finish: Toffee, mocha, toasted honey, green apple, grain, nutmeg, spicy, peppery, briny, leather, smoky, woody, complex, zesty, awesome.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Booker's Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey



Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
(Knob Creek Distilling Co., KY)
100° prf

Nose: Toffee, butterscotch, creamy, buttery, dark chocolate, vanilla, honey, cherry, pineapple, ginger, light rye, bread dough, vegetal, straw, myrtle leaves, nutty, spice, leather, bamboo, sharp wood, forest.
Palate: Caramel, nougat, creamy, molasses, buttery, vanilla, sweet vanilla, honey, dates, cherry, strawberry, pineapple, toast, cereal, mixed grains, minty, cashews, nutty, cinnamon, spice, black pepper, fireplace, oak, cedar, well-balanced, zingy, velvety, smooth.
Finish: Cherry, sweet cherry, vanilla, maple, honey, toasted bread, mint, menthol, nice spice, spicy, white pepper, oak, bourbon, good balance, round, nice, soft, smooth, well made, great.


Double Gold Medal
Double Gold medal



Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey



GOLD MEDAL WINNERS

Monterey Rye – Batch No. 24
(Fog's End Distillery, CA) 90° prf

Nose: Butterscotch, caramel, sweet caramel, salted caramel, soft toffee, dark sugars, hot chocolate, strong vanilla, vanilla!, creamy eclairs, honey, apricot, plum, berries, banana, ripe banana peel, buttered popcorn, butter, buttered toasted oats, walnut, earth, gentle oak, dry oak.
Palate: Toffee, buttery caramel, cocoa, light chocolate note, vanilla, powdered sugar, dates, plum, ripe banana peels, minty, peppermint, almond, roasted nuts, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, spicy, peppercorn, rye, leather, oak, nicely balanced, smooth, bold, zesty, delicious.
Finish: Caramel, creamy, green apple, herbal, walnut, hazelnut, spicy, white pepper, peppery, wood, balanced, dry, crisp, silky, tasty, elegant, delightful.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Monterey Rye Batch No. 24



Sugar House Rye Whiskey
(Sugarhouse Distillery, UT)
80% rye, 10% malted rye. 92° prf

Nose: Caramel, toffee, dark chocolate, vanilla, brown sugar, burnt sugar, raisins, dried apples, hint of strawberry, plum, ginger, mint, black tea, flour, nut, sweet nuttiness, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, pepper, tobacco, wood chips, tree bark, oak, very oaky.
Palate: Toffee, nougat, cocoa, dark brown sugar, butter, creamy, sweet vanilla, honey, cherry, apricot, orange, citrus, green apple, mint, sweet pea, rye, grain, mixed grains, nuttiness, nutmeg, spice, white pepper, tobacco leaves, oak, great balance, smooth.
Finish: Vanilla, creamy, creamed corn, cocoa, semi-sweet raisins, dried fruit, orange zest, herbs, pepper, toast, coffee, leather, oaky, well balanced, approachable, zesty, velvety, silky, smooth, Old Fashioned cocktail.

Gold Medal
Gold medal



Sugar House Rye Whiskey



Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey
(Old Fashioned Copper Distillery, Frankfort, KY)
Bottled-In-Bond. Aged at least 4 years. 100° prf

Nose: Toffee, caramel, nougat, brown sugar, butter, vanilla, honey, bananas, bubble gum, orange rind, crystallized ginger rye toast, walnuts, nutty, clove, spice, oak, brandy.
Palate: Toffee, caramel, cocoa, mocha, hot mocha, chocolate, vanilla, dried fruit, cherry, ripe banana, apricot, apples, green apple, orange peel, citron, strong citrus, grain, rye flour, rye, classic rye character, nutty, pepper, spice, spicy, black pepper, oak, zingy, rich, smooth.
Finish: Mocha, crème brûlée, banana pudding, sherry, mint julep, citrus, walnut, nutty, rye, grain, light spice, peppery, clean, zingy, zesty, smooth, approachable.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey



No. 4 Westchester Rye Whiskey
(StillTheOne Distillery, NY)
100% New York State rye. Aged 34 months. 90° prf

Nose: Caramel, nougat, brown sugar, sugar cane, powdered sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, honey, pineapple, plum, root vegetables, herb, minty, rye flour, grain, roasted hazelnut, nutty, allspice, thyme, earthy, leather, camp fire, oak, cognac.
Palate: Salted caramel, burnt custard, cream, sugar cane, maple, sweet pastry, butter, bananas foster, apricot, dark cherry, plum, toasty apples, green apple, ginger, herbs, rye, toast, walnuts, roasted nuts, nuts, spice, baking spice, black pepper, charred cedar, oak.
Finish: Maple, grain, toast, grain, mint, clove, cinnamon, spicy, citrus zest, zesty, very flavorful, nice sweetness, bold, rich, memorable.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



No. 4 Westchester Rye Whiskey



Driftless Glen Straight Rye Whiskey – Single Barrel
(Driftless Glen Distillery, WI)
Aged minimum 2 years. 96° prf

Nose: Light toffee, buttered rum, sugar cane, strong vanilla, maple, honey, ripe peaches, plum, strawberry, walnuts, nutty, bread, cinnamon, menthol, spearmint, tobacco, leather, rum-like, bourbon-like.
Palate: Caramel, toffee, sugar cane, creamy, vanilla, sweet cake, dates, plum, cherry, sweet fruit, apple, anise, mint, herb, roasted almonds, rye, strong rye, clove, spice, spicy, leather, woody, oaky, mellow oak, balanced, good sweet note, rich, zesty.
Finish: Caramel, dark chocolate, nougat, buttery, vanilla, raisin, apple, herbs, grain, spicy, peppery, earthy, oak, balanced, zingy, zesty, smooth, approachable.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Driftless Glen Straight Rye Whiskey Single Barrel



Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye
(Kentucky Springs Distilling Co., KY)
Kentucky straight rye whiskey blended with Canadian rye whisky and port. 80° prf

Nose: Caramel, nougat, vanilla, brown sugar, honey, dried apricot, dried fruit, ripe bananas, banana, rich plum, strawberry, sweet green apple, cola nut, walnuts, toast, anise, clove, very light cinnamon, leather, cedar, oak.
Palate: Toffee, caramel, nougat, buttery, creamy, vanilla cream, sugar cane, heavy sugar, sweet ripe banana, sweet plum, plums, raisins, raw dough, flour, nuts, roasted nuts, rye, spice, spicy, pepper, black pepper, well balanced, smooth, soft approach, very mellow.
Finish: Toffee, creamy, buttery, brown butter, honey, dried prunes, dried fruits, rye flour, walnut, pecan, nutty, cinnamon, nutmeg, oak, lingering sweetness, bourbon-like, rich, bright, lively, beautiful.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye



1420 Hemped Rye Spirit
(Sono 1420 Artisan Distillers, CT)
Distilled from 75% rye, 15% corn & 10% milled hemp seed. 92° prf

Nose: Caramel, vanilla, raisin, prune, dried berries, ripe banana, apricot, cherry, strawberry, green apple, citrus, herbs, eucalyptus, floral, perfume-y, rye flour, grain, spice, light tobacco, oak.
Palate: Caramel, toffee, maple, honey, raisins, dried apricot, dried fruit, cherry, green apples, orange zest, floral, herbs, mint, fresh mint, menthol, anise, nutty, cinnamon, spicy, lots of pepper, green walnuts, coffee, leather, tobacco, light smoke, smoke, well balanced, zesty, smooth, approachable.
Finish: Dark chocolate, creamy, vanilla, honey, dried pears, orange blossom, citrus, peppery, spicy, black pepper, rye flour, oak, light oak, woody, winter season, balanced, complex, soft, smooth, gentle, pleasant, elegant.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



1420 Hemped Rye Spirit



New Holland Beer Barrel Rye
(New Holland Brewing Co., MI) 88° prf
Rested in American oak, finished in Dragon’s Milk beer barrels.

Nose: Caramel, nougat, cocoa, chocolate, butter, sugar cane, molasses, maple, caramel apple, dried apricots, basket of fruits, banana, cherry, strawberry, pear, lemon, green apple skins, rose, sweet herbs, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, leather.
Palate: Toffee, dark sugar, vanilla, honey, apricot candy, apricots, sweet cherries, Rainier cherries, tangy cherry, plum, papaya, herbal, barley, rye, malty, coffee, rosemary, oregano, spicy, black pepper, licorice, mossy, leather, wood, powerful punch, smooth.
Finish: Sweet cherries, cherry note, apricot, dried fruit, herb, amaretto, resin, grain, rye, coffee, spicy, pepper, balanced, zesty.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



New Holland Beer Barrel Rye



Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye Whiskey
(Hillrock Estate Distillery, NY)
Aged under 4 years. Master Distiller Dave Pickerell. 90° prf

Nose: Toffee, caramel, nougat, dark sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, sweet vanilla, honey, dried fruit, cherry, wild cherry, plum, pineapple, ginger, grain, rye, wheat flour, nutty, mint, cloves, spice, saline, leather, oak.
Palate: Toffee, chocolate, chocolate nut, sugar cane, maple syrup, dried fruit, dried apricot, dried dates, sweet cherry, cherry, banana, strawberry, oatmeal, wheat, malt, rye, tobacco, fresh fig leaves, tobacco leaf, earthy, herbal, clove, cinnamon, spicy, smoky, leather, oak, sweet at first, rich, smooth.
Finish: Dried cherries, dried fig, creamy, choco/tobacco, tobacco, rye, rye bread, grain, mint, walnuts, black pepper, forest floor, woody, oaky, spicy, lively, zingy, zesty.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Hillrock Estate Double Cask Rye Whiskey



Driftless Glen 51 Rye Whiskey
(Driftless Glen Distillery, WI)
Aged more that 2 years. 102° prf

Nose: Dark chocolate, chocolatey, caramel, caramel custard, soft hint of butter, maple, vanilla, honey, cherries, apple peel, ginger, hint of mint, roasted beans, black tea, rye, clove, cinnamon, spicy, leather, camp fire, oak.
Palate: Caramel, demerara, maple, honey, cherries, plum, apricot, citrus, toast, mixed grains, rye, mint, nutty, clove, spice, spicy, pepper, black pepper, leather, very woody, oak, bitter oak, nicely sweet, creamy.
Finish: Vanilla, dates, cherry, dried orange peels, lemon rind, lemon zest, spicy, tobacco, woodsy, wood tannin, oak, cedar, creamy, smooth.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Driftless Glen 51 Rye Whiskey



Lost Republic Rye Whiskey
(Lost Republic Distilling Co., Healdsburg, CA)
Aged not less than 2 years. 90° prf

Nose: Toffee, butterscotch, nougat, cocoa, chocolate, Milky Way bar, cream, sweet, babka, maple, light burnt sugar, hint of honey, ripe banana, vanilla, cherry, dark cherry, jasmine, toasty, walnut, nutmeg, cinnamon, white peppercorn, leather, earth, fresh cut wood, woody, oak.
Palate: Cherry, banana, banana peel, zesty tangerine, dried fruit, green apple skins, ginger, mint, herbs, dry grass, grain, buttery, graham cracker, toast, spice cake, sweet cinnamon, allspice, spicy, black pepper, perfume, leather, smoky, charred wood, oak, balanced.
Finish: Caramel, apricot, ripe apples, citrus, mint, herbs, spicy, peppery, black pepper, grain, oak, well balanced, nice zing, zingy, zesty.


Gold Medal
Gold medal



Lost Republic Rye Whiskey



SILVER MEDAL WINNERS

Wigle Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey
(Pittsburgh Distilling Co., PA)
Monongahela rye. Certified organic. 84° prf

Nose: Caramel, Charleston Chew, buttery, nougat, cocoa, dark chocolate, vanilla, crème brûlée, cotton candy, honey, cherry, dried cherry, banana, pineapple, dried oats, toasty, flour, wheat flour, grain, matzo, bamboo shoots, hazelnut, sweet nuttiness, roasted nuts, spice, spicy, leather, woodsy, oak, bourbon barrel.
Palate: Caramel, dark chocolate, sugar cane, honey, red cherry, orange, dried fruit, barley, herbs, grainy, nuttiness, clove, nutmeg, spicy, pepper, mint, green leaves, earthy, tobacco, leather, oak, fresh oak, cedar, great mouth feel, bright, tasty, beautifully creamy, smooth, gentle.
Finish: Dark chocolate, mocha, toasted, grain, buttery, leather, orange zest, pepper, herbs & spice, wood spice, softly spicy, balanced, zesty, elegant, great for cocktails.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



Wigle Pennsylvania Straight Rye Whiskey



Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey
(Rabbit Hole Distillery, KY)
95% rye, 5% malted rye. Aged over 3 years. 95° prf

Nose: Toffee, caramel, butter, vanilla, marzipan, maple, maple syrup, honey, dried figs, apricot, spiced fruit, ginger, sweetened breakfast cereal & milk, corn, rye flour, nut, peanuts, spice, mineral, green leaves, bark, oaky.
Palate: Caramel, sugar cane, honey, clover honey, maple, cherry, apricot, ripe banana, dried fruit, sweet potato, vegetal, veggie, rye, grain, toasted grain, nutty, mint, cinnamon, spice, hot spice, black pepper, leather, oak, full flavor, creamy, smooth.
Finish: Creamy, raisins, pineapple, green apples, ginger, minty, anise, roasted nuts, tarragon, spicy, peppery, white pepper, nice, cozy.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey



Yellow Rose Distilling Rye Whiskey
(Yellow Rose Distilling, TX)
Aged at least 1 year. 90° prf

Nose: Brown sugar, honey, ripe plum, cherry, apple, green apple, lemon zest, citrus, green grass, arugula, straw, smooth grain, nutty, nutmeg, hint of clove, cinnamon, spice, pepper, hints of pepper, faint leather, oaky, charred oak, aged barrel.
Palate: Nougat, honey, macerated apple, green apple, citrus, orange zest, ginger, green grass, herbs, straw, grain, walnuts, toasted walnuts, clove, bright nutmeg, spice, pepper, apple jack, soft leather, oak, creamy, buttery, well balanced, smooth.
Finish: Creamy, sugar cane, lemon, anise, nutty, oak, pepper, jalapeno, spicy, zingy, zesty, pleasant, great.


Silver Medal
Silver medal



Yellow Rose Distilling Rye Whiskey

 


 

The Rye Revival – What Took So Long?

 

Historically, rye whiskey was the favored grain of the East Coast. George Washington even had the largest rye whiskey distillery in early America on his Virginia estate. By the 1780s, around 5,000 log still houses were operating in Pennsylvania and Maryland producing the whiskey that came to be known as “rye”. Mostly by German immigrants that had been using rye in the production of schnapps and vodka back in northern Europe.

Two different styles of rye whiskey developed during the colonial era: Pennsylvania or Monongahela-style, and Maryland-style rye. Since the bulk transportation of large amounts of grain was not practical during this era, the distillers made whiskey from the grain grown on their farm or from grains grown nearby. Corn was not generally native north of the southern edge of Pennsylvania; so the distillers made rye whiskey with no corn in it. Monongahela Rye was known for its ultra-high rye content and its full-bodied and spicy nature. Distillers operating in the southern part of America made Maryland style rye, a mixture of rye with some corn. The rye content in Maryland style rye tended to be about 65%, and it was notably sweeter and more mellow than its northern cousin.

Since the still was essentially a piece of farm equipment, it should be no surprise that by the late 1700’s, there were literally thousands of small grain distilleries each in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. It is estimated that there were between 14,000 and 20,000 distilleries operating in the United States between 1810 and 1840. Rye was the most prevalent grain in colonial America. It was considerably more hardy than barley, and much easier to grow. Corn, or maize, was native to America, but only south of the Mason-Dixon line, and most of the population was to the north.

While the center of population in the United States remained east of the Appalachian Mountains, rye whiskey flourished. Shipping routes in the east favored rye whiskey over its cousin from Kentucky. The only major shipping routes for bourbon were down the river to New Orleans or overland through the mountains. As such, rye whiskey was the main style of whiskey consumed in the United States from the end of the Civil War until prohibition.

Back in the 1880’s, saloons were all the rage. There were thousands of them in the old American west. Much of the liquor sold were pretty mean homemade concoctions called rotgut or Firewater, (sometimes made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar and a little chewing tobacco), but the majority of saloons “imported” rye whiskeys from the Eastern states for their regular customers. Rye was not sold in "shots". It was sold in a small glass which normally held a gill (4 ounces) and cost a nickel. This price could be much higher in cities or for big name brand liquors. For example, a good quality bottle of rye whiskey in a nice hotel might be as much as 2 dollars. Rye was usually served straight, but the distinctive flavor made it a perfect mixer during the early years of the cocktail. Three of the most popular classic cocktails were originally created for rye whiskey — the Old-Fashioned, the Manhattan & the Sazerac.

Before the Prohibition, there were over 50 brands of rye. When Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in 1920, many enterprising residents of small towns across America chose to become outlaws – They produced thousands of kegs per month, supplying Al Capone and other gangs who in turn filled the demand of speakeasies throughout Chicago, New York and all the way west to San Francisco.

By the time Prohibition ended, most American whiskey distilleries had ceased production. The few that existed were put at a massive competitive disadvantage to imported aged spirits. Boatloads of well-aged Scotch and Irish whiskies were waiting offshore in the northeast, truckloads of aged Canadian Whiskey were waiting to cross the border from Canada and ships full of mature rum were waiting in the Caribbean. The astute American distiller quickly realized that when getting back into the business, they would not be able to compete on quality, so they would have to compete on price.

The bourbon distilleries in Kentucky were better situated to build large facilities to garner economy of scale. There was plenty of land and a very well-developed rail system. Conversely, most of the rye distilleries in the east were on small farm plots with poor infrastructure and were not well funded. Additionally, the first farm subsidy bill supported corn but not rye. As a result, it was cheaper to make bourbon than it was to make rye. Sadly, almost none of the Monongahela rye distilleries were able to come back when prohibition ended. It is more difficult to process high percent rye than high corn, so the decision to focus heavily on bourbon was easy to make.

From the end of Prohibition until 2006, rye whiskey was in steady decline. With a few exceptions, the independent rye whiskey brands either died off completely or were bought up by the larger bourbon distilleries. The bourbon distilleries would switch to rye whiskey distilling for one or two days per year as they continued to meet the ever-declining demand. No marketing money was being spent in support of the rye whiskey brands, and it appeared that they were collectively headed toward a long downward spiral until they died off completely. By 2006, there were only about 150,000 total cases of rye whiskey sold in the United States, compared with 14.7 million cases of bourbon.

Specialty rye was reborn in 2006. For the first time in 87 years, modern pioneers across the country dusted off old family records, recreating great grandpa's handed-down recipes and started producing rye whiskies deeply rooted in tradition. A decade ago in this country there were only six brands of rye. Now you can find over 400 brands, and rye whiskey has once again become one of the most popular go-to craft spirits. North American farmers are now seeing their largest rye crop in years as whiskey sales soar.

Rye is riding on the soaring rise in popularity of American whiskeys, growing in volume sales by 536% since 2009. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (Discus), sales volumes for rye whiskey rose by more than 1,000 percent between 2009 and 2018. In 2018, 1.1 billion cases of rye were sold. Is it any wonder that distilleries rushed to produce rye whiskies? Especially since rye must be aged, so many distilleries had to wait a year or two for barrel maturing.

Rye whiskey is made from fermented mashed grain that is at least 51% rye grain by law, sometimes with barley, corn and other grains blended in. Many of the newer, small-batch brands use 100% rye. Ryes must be distilled at less than 80% ABV (160 proof), and aged in new, charred oak barrels, used one-time only. Ryes labeled as "straight" must be aged for at least two years.

Rye whiskies are typically dry, peppery, and grainy, with complex flavors bursting with fruit, walnuts, and spice. This distinctly bold assertive character is embraced by a dedicated and continuously growing following of discerning whiskey fans.

 

 

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