From the brink of shelf elimination, from the ashes, rye whiskey has risen, and there’s now a larger selection of quality rye than ever before. And it’s happened in a flash, with American rye whiskey sales increasing 662 percent from 2009 to 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. More brands are continuing to join the rye fray, whether they’re big players, small distilleries or non-distiller producers.
How can one make sense of it all? What are the need-to-know rules for this rye renaissance? Paul Taylor, the senior bar manager for Washington, D.C.’s Drink Company and its lineup of bars, including Eat the Rich, Mockingbird Hill and the whiskey-centric Southern Efficiency, offers some much-needed guidance.
Know Your Rye Styles
All ryes are not the same, and there’s actually a spectrum of styles to know. “As a category, just like bourbon or scotch, rye has a wide range of flavors,” says Taylor.
Broadly speaking, two historical camps of rye are Monongahela, or Pennsylvania-style, and Maryland-style. While much of the production has long since decamped to Kentucky, Indiana (more on that below) and beyond, the styles still hold up. Instead of worrying about the region, though, think more about composition and taste.
“Pennsylvania was a spicier rye, because that’s the only grain they were using,” says Taylor. Many Pennsylvania-style ryes were originally 100 percent rye, but anything more than 80 or 90 percent rye likely fits the big, spicy high-rye flavor profile.
“In Maryland, you saw more corn integrated into what they were making,” says Taylor. “As lower-percentage ryes, corn is used to round them out a little bit.” Corn adds a sweeter and rounder side to the bold, spicy characteristics of rye.
2. Order Up a Classic Cocktail
Rye’s rebirth is in many ways owed to the bartenders who re-popularized the spirit. “I definitely think bartenders helped revive that, because it’s that constant search to have the cocktail the way it was originally made,” says Taylor. “When we go through these old recipe books and it calls for rye or it calls for a gomme syrup or this thing or that thing, we want to source it and make it the way it was originally supposed to be had.”
As more bartenders began churning out old-school whiskey cocktails, rye became a frequent bar staple, and cocktails are often the best introductory tool to introduce a consumer to any kind of spirit or ingredient. It wasn’t long before bar customers ordering up perfectly stirred Manhattans were also asking about the whiskey being used and then searching for it on store shelves to bring home.
3. Ease the Transition from Bourbon
Many people have preordained ideals about bourbon or scotch based on what their fathers drank or what they saw on television, but with rye, most are forced to start from scratch, without any built-in loyalty.
“The way I got into drinking bourbon was that I just thought it was what I was supposed to do,” says Taylor. “I’m 21, I’m going to a bar, I’m going to have a Maker’s Mark on the rocks! I’ve seen it happen on TV, and that’s how people move into things. Sometimes when I see people in that mindset of drinking, rye is sort of scary, because they’re stuck to a name brand or style of spirit, whether it’s a single malt and their dad drank scotch or this thing or that thing.”
For bourbon drinkers unsure of how to delve into this whole rye thing, consider the two points above: Know your rye styles, and look to cocktails. “Rittenhouse rye is our staple, and it’s a great almost transitional rye if you’re a bourbon drinker,” says Taylor.
Rittenhouse uses a mash bill with just 51 percent rye, bringing it much closer to the bourbon realm than one of its high-rye brethren. “If you’re thinking, Hey I want to drink these cocktails as I thought they’re supposed to be drank, then for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, this is not as aggressive of a rye, but it still has enough proof to pull through.”
Many bourbon drinkers may already like the flavor of rye more than the realize too. If you enjoy spicier, bolder bourbons, then you’re enjoying its rye side, as opposed to bourbons with a softer wheated profile.
So there’s no reason to steer clear of rye or think that it’s in any way lesser as a grain than corn or lesser as a category than bourbon. “Rye is involved in a lot of delicious things,” says Taylor. “I think some people have a misconception that rye as a whiskey is maybe inferior to bourbon and that rye is not as much of a sipping whiskey. But that’s not true.”
4. Separate Distillers from Non-Distiller Producers
Rye has been at the center of the “sourcing” firestorm in the American whiskey world for the past few years. As dozens of brands began sprouting up with aged rye whiskey, much of it was quite similar in nature, showcasing a dry, spicy side, distilled with a 95 percent rye mash bill and distilled by MGP Ingredients in Lawrenceburg, Ind.
The problem is that some of these brands left off that last detail—the small bit about how they didn’t distill the stuff. There’s nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey and being a non-distiller producer. The issue is only what was at times a lack of transparency and at other times downright fraudulent in terms of how certain brands were presented.
“There are people out there who will sort of put that down, as a negative, like, oh, they don’t make it, they source it,” says Taylor. “I don’t see it as a negative. As long as you’re honest and there’s transparency in what you’re doing, I see no problem with it. I actually find a lot of delicious products come out of that.”
Once again—say it with me here: There’s no problem with sourcing as long as the brand is being transparent and the consumer isn’t being lied to. For instance, fully transparent brands such as Smooth Ambler and High West continue to pick up accolades while showcasing their skills as blenders.
So how can you find out if a rye has been distilled by the brand selling it or if it’s sourced? “On the back of the label, it should read ‘distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana’ or wherever,” says Taylor. “It should pay homage to the person who made it.”
The problem is that many brands still don’t. So if you don’t see any “distilled by” statement and only see a “bottled by” statement, assume it’s sourced. Anyone distilling it themselves will make the distinction on the label. If fine print on the back of labels seems confusing, then do some quick research online. How old is the brand? If the distillery just opened in 2016 but it’s already selling a four-year-old rye, well, you can do the math.
5. Get Crafty, Because Rye Is Great Young
The good news for America’s young craft distilleries is that rye whiskey can generally reach a pretty high quality in a short amount of time. “Rye is a versatile ingredient and shows well young,” says Taylor. “A lot of flavors come out of younger rye, and rye as a grain has these characteristics that shine through a little bit different from the corn in bourbon.”
That’s part of the reason why so many craft distilleries are turning to rye whiskey. Not only is it popular and with less ingrained brand loyalty than bourbon, but they’re able to make serious headway in a short amount of time.
Taylor is a big advocate for aforementioned brands including Smooth Ambler and Rittenhouse. As far as young craft rye recommendations go, he has another pick. “Willett three-year-old is delightful,” says Taylor. “There’s such a Bardstown feel to it, and it’s a cask strength. It’s really, really delightful.”