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Rye whiskey makes a comeback

Rye whiskey, a historical flavor from colonial times, has been on a bit of a resurgence in the past decade.

It was not all that long ago when a customer asked for a rye and ginger, or whatever the mixer, the bartender usually reached for a Canadian whiskey. Rye whiskey made in the USA had fallen to the point where only a couple distilleries made any attempt at producing this flavor.


Rye whiskey enjoyed popular beginnings when the colonists from Europe came across the Atlantic. Pennsylvania and Maryland were among the first colonies to use the plentiful grain of rye when distilling started. Corn, which was grown in abundance in Kentucky was the grain for distillers there and bourbon was born.


For years rye whiskey was drank as much as bourbon whiskey. Cocktails were created using rye whiskey specifically. The Manhattan is one of those drinks.

Bourbon is usually considered a bit more sweet and caramelized in taste, putting in dark sugars and barrel char flavor from the barrels. When rye whiskey hits the palate, the flavor has peppery notes and hints of licorice. It is not a sweet whiskey. Not truly spicy in the sense of heat, it is the compound of hitting the tastebuds and nose of this spicy whiskey to create a mental impression of the peppery notes.


As time went by and the West was being settled, bourbon became the legal standard for whiskey, but rye flourished in its own right. There was not the strong regulations for what constituted rye as there was for bourbon. Rye did have the requirement of being 51 percent rye grain and no more than 160 proof and no less than 125 proof. It must be interred in charred new-oak barrels where it must sit for a minimum of two years.

Rye was could be argued to be the king of American whiskey prior to 1920. It explains why so many saloons in the West carried rye whiskey. As the American thirst for whiskey increased, so did production to make it. Rye whiskey became an industry in itself. Rye whiskey reached the West Coast and found its place in a many respectable drink in different venues and enjoyed immense popularity.


Besides the Manhattan, the Sazerac is another cherished rye cocktail.

The 19th Amendment changed everything. From 1920 through 1933, all production, not counting the illegal, stopped. Many distilleries went out of business. This experiment of prohibition killed a lot of good spirits. When prohibition did end rye was not in favor. The money to start up the distilleries went to Kentucky for bourbon. Rye was king no more.

With all the money going to rebuild the bourbon industry, there was no real impetus to bring back rye.


Old Overholt, which is owned by Jim Beam, was about the only American rye whiskey available for mass consumption in the American market. It is not to say there were not some good Ryes in the past decades, but they were lost in the world of bourbon drinkers. To the credit of cowboys, rye whiskey was often their drink of choice. It would be a stretch to say the cowboys out West saved rye whiskey, but they were key consumers.


The cowboy allure of drinking rye whiskey or maybe its rustic beginnings had Rye whiskey slowly creep back into America’s and the world’s drinking consciousness. This old style of whiskey, which was around as the country started its birth, has become hip since around 2010. High West, Whistle Pig, Templeton Rye, Sazerac Rye, Bullett Rye, Jim Beam Rye, Rittenhouse, Wild Turkey Rye, are just some of the Ryes available in addition to Old Overholt. There are more brands on the horizon as many younger imbibers are discovering Ryes. Local Carbon County distiller Brush Creek has a rye. They not only have a rye whiskey, they have a special release called Railroad Rye. This special whiskey takes a trip on a train and is turning into a best seller for the distillery.


Rye whiskey might have gone out of fashion for a few decades, but it is back in a big way.

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