Ask people to name a rye whiskey label, and they’ll probably squint and mumble, “Uh, Canadian Club?” (Which is a blended whiskey, not a rye, according to the U.S. Standards of Identity.)
Yet over the last couple of years, rye has become the hottest “new” whiskey around, despite its being America’s first colonial spirit, long before bourbon was ever distilled.
“When we first came back on the market with our Michter’s Rye in the 1990s, we were turned down by distributors,” says Joseph J. Magliocco, President of Michter’s Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, which had gone bankrupt in 1989. “Now, we’re completely sold out of our 10 and 25-year-old ryes, and our Chinese importer tells us it’s selling in Hong Kong bars for $150 per ounce!”
This new fame was a long time coming. After Prohibition, rye competed well enough with bourbon, but by the late 1970s all “brown goods,” including bourbon, Scotch, and brandy, were in free fall, and replaced by more popular “white goods” like vodka and rum. “The word ‘rye’ on a bottle was a negative for years,” says Magliocco.
The renewed interest in bourbon in the 1990s brought a flood of new small batch and signature bourbons onto the market, spurring others to fill a niche market for smoother, small-batch, aged ryes that are now being made in Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, Illinois and Indiana.
According to Fred Minnick, who writes for the Whiskey Advocate blog, Seagram’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana, distillery was acquired in 2001 by Pernod Ricard. When it said it would close it in 2006, the distillery was left with a couple thousand barrels of rye whiskey with nowhere to go.
Small brands started popping up and buying the Indiana juice.
“Bartenders got hold of it and loved it for making whiskey sours, old fashioneds and Manhattans, said Minnick.
“Then the Japanese and English, who love American whiskeys, started bringing cases back with them on the plane, so now there’s incredible interest in the international market for rye. In fact, a lot of rye grain is now coming out of Europe.”
When the Sazerac label introduced its “small batch” rye 10 years ago, it was “a real gamble,” according to Kris Comstock, marketing director of Buffalo Trace, Sazerac’s distillery: “Now there’s such a proliferation of info through social media and online that American whiskeys are booming.”
The new ryes are largely distinguished by their barrel finishing. Angel’s Envy master distiller Lincoln Henderson, 74, with his son Wes and grandson Kyle, is finished in Caribbean rum whiskey casks.
“We had to come up with cool ideas,” says Lincoln. “So I tasted hundreds of different rums, then sought out the barrels that the ones I liked were aged in. So we take a 95 percent rye whiskey and age it in those barrels. The natural spiciness of rye collides in a beautiful way with the molasses and rum flavors.”
Their first bottling will be released in mid-May and by 2014 their rye will be distributed in 27 states.
I tasted a wide array of ryes -- with a splash of water -- and found them a far cry from the raw, stinging stuff of the past. Here are some of my favorites.
A 92-proof beauty, made from 95 percent rye sourced from Indiana. The nose bolts out of the glass before you even sniff it. It’s very smooth, broadens on the palate, with a mild finish but little bite.
Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottle in Bond Straight Rye ($24)
Though made in Kentucky, this is a “Pennsylvania-style” rye named after David Rittenhouse, first director of the U.S. Mint. Even with its high proof, this is a silky, creamy whiskey with a seductive, slow burn. Not meant for diluting in a cocktail.
Sazerac Rye ($30)
One of five Sazerac ryes, this 90-proof crisp style has lots of flavor components and hints of molasses and cinnamon, and it goes down very easily. An ideal base for rye cocktails.
Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Straight Rye ($70)
Another Sazerac rye, it’s pricey and shows off breeding through a mating of rye and malted barley. While light in color, it has a briary cut to it that may remind you of a single-malt Scotch.
Michter’s 10 Year Old ($70)
Michter’s U.S. No.1 Single Barrel Straight Rye is impressive enough for its depth and layers of true rye flavors. The 10-year-old shows just how strikingly American whiskey can compete with the finest Scotches and Cognacs out there. If you want complexity, a nip of oak and smoke, this is well worth seeking out and worth every penny it costs.
Another blockbuster at 100 proof, this has plenty of spice notes and gets vanilla from its charred oak barrels.
Aged ten years and 100 proof from 100 percent rye, Whistle Pig is currently made from Canadian rye finished in bourbon barrels in Vermont. It’s got plenty of spice, some anise and caramel, and it’s gaining favor and distribution beyond the New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
Willett 4 Year Old Single Barrel Rare Release ($36)
Ready for a 110-proof rye? This is a surprisingly very smooth whiskey indeed, with little burn, and has a lush, sweet element to it. The company has a Franco-American colonial history and opened its distillery in 1935.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, John Mariani on drink and Craig Seligman on books.