Since the inception of Centennial Tours, we have noticed a rise in the popularity of rye whiskey. So, I guess it is about time I talked about it. Did you know prior to the 20s rye whiskey was the most most popular whiskey in the U.S.? Any idea who ran the largest rye distillery in 18th century America? George Washington.
Rye is certainly a unique grain, and when used in large quantity, it is not only difficult to work with, but it is a flavor bully. It is spicy and assertive. Like juniper in gin, drinkers usually love it or hate it.
A true rye whiskey has to be at least 51% rye, and is usually complimented with the addition of barley and corn. On rare occasions you will find ryes with wheat, like at Laws Whiskey House. Increasingly, we are seeing more and more with 95 – 100% rye in the mash bill. A decade ago there weren’t many to be found, but now, thanks to the distillery explosion, bartenders, liquor stores, and educated whiskey aficionados are seeking out the lost flavor of rye.
After the Volstead Act was passed normally law-abiding citizens, starting drinking bootlegged Canadian whiskey. This resulted in a shift in tastes. Americans started preferring lighter whiskey, and this shift in preference has lasted for 100 years. Of course, that was before the craft brewery explosion. We are living in the golden age of alcohol now, and Americans are embracing everything new, old, and extreme.
According to thewhiskeywash.com* rye whiskey sales are up “536% from just 88,000 9-liter cases sold to over half a million (561,000) last year. Put in the perspective of dollars, that translates to just over $15 million six years ago, with a huge jump upward through last year that’s topped $106 million.”
Of course, like any assertive flavor profile, I get plenty of guests telling me how, try as they might, they just don’t like rye. Conversely, most of the true whiskey aficionados I meet love it. While I do believe you should drink what you like, don’t give up on a whiskey category until you have tried at least 10 different ones. I would compare rye to a peaty Scotch, a dry gin, or a sour beer. They can be quite extreme, but once you acquire the taste, and appreciate what the distiller/brewer is doing, life just gets better.