Prohibition Nearly Killed Rye
Prohibition hurt all American spirit producers, but the effect on rye was particularly devastating. As everyone knows, Prohibition did little to stop Americans from drinking. However, it did influence what they drank.
Bootleggers smuggled in whiskey from Canada that had a softer profile than American rye whiskey. Americans didn’t fully turn their backs on bold flavor profiles—they were still drinking bathtub gin and moonshine at the time. Medicinal bourbon was also available with a prescription and would emerge as the dominant style of American whiskey following the repeal of Prohibition.
Rye’s bold and spicy flavor was no longer what American drinkers expected from whiskey. Once-mighty rye whiskey was on the decline, but it wasn’t about to disappear.
Bartenders Carry the Torch
Even at rye’s lowest point in the middle of the 20th century, many bartenders insisted on keeping a bottle of rye handy for making Manhattans or their own signature creations. These bartenders advocated for rye for the same reason it fell out of favor: its uniquely bold character.
Rye is a great base for cocktails due to its complex flavor profile, featuring herbaceous, fruit and spice-driven characteristics. The dry nature of American rye whiskey brings balance to sweet and refreshing cocktails while also being able to stand up in more spirit-forward cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. The truly bold can also enjoy rye neat or on the rocks.
Bartenders who researched the original builds of many classic cocktails and appreciated the character of American rye whiskey in other recipes kept rye from being lost to history. They may not have realized it at the time, but they were also setting the stage for the rye revival.