Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
Some 100 years before the development of what we’d recognize as modern bourbon, rye whiskey was already establishing itself as the first truly iconic, American-made spirit.
Oh sure, occupants of this continent had been consuming liquor since long before the U.S.A. existed as an entity of its own. Rum was the de facto spirit of the common man from the mid-1600s onward, as the potent, molasses-based liquors of the Caribbean were an integral part of the triangular slavery trade. Rum remained in that position of prominence through the American revolution, when a combination of factors led to the rum trade being severely reduced. With British ships no longer bringing Caribbean molasses to American ports, and the federal government beginning taxation of rum in the 1790s, it left the door open for a truly American spirit to emerge. Bourbon got there eventually, but the early portion of the 1800s? That belonged to rye, which Irish and Scottish immigrants developed on the East coast after realizing that rye was more suited to the American soil than their favored barley.
It’s easy to underestimate now how big rye whiskey was in that heyday. Even the cocktail wonks among us likely think of rye as something like bourbon’s quirky little brother, and that’s more than a decade into rye’s resurgence in the American cocktail scene. But in the early 1800s, rye rolling out of production centers in Pennsylvania and Maryland was the absolute star of the show, and the quintessential American spirit. In 1810, whereas Kentucky produced 2.2 million gallons of bourbon, Pennsylvania produced a staggering 6.5 million gallons of its own rye whiskey. The explosion of both rye and bourbon that followed was driven by abundance of newly planted grain, and that abundance likewise made whiskey obscenely cheap. Is it any wonder this availability led to dangerous, absurdly high drinking rates in the early 1800s?
Today, after decades of languishing as an “old man’s drink,” rye has again reclaimed a position of prominence in American drinking culture. Here, then, are five key questions you might have about rye whiskey, and their answers. You may also want to check out our blind tasting of 6 bottom-shelf rye whiskeys.
Liquor blind tastings are always a good time.
The federal definition for rye whiskey in the U.S. mirrors the definition of bourbon, and essentially works the same way, merely swapping the base grains. To that end, whereas bourbon is a liquor defined by being made from corn, rye is unsurprisingly defined by the rye grain.
To be labeled as rye whiskey in the United States, the spirit must be made from a grain mash that contains at least 51% rye. This rye can be unmalted (this is traditional) or malted, but it must be the majority of the spirit. The remainder of the mash is traditionally corn and malted barley, but some ryes also omit the corn entirely. They may even include other grains such as wheat or triticale (the hybrid of wheat and rye), but this is far less common.
This mash is fermented and then distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% abv), before being aged in newly charred oak barrels—no used barrels allowed—at a barrel entry proof not to exceed 125 (62.5%). It must then be bottled at a federal minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV). In order to be called “straight rye whiskey,” meanwhile, the spirit must have aged for at least two years in the barrel, and not be blended with any other non-straight rye. As in bourbon, the term “straight” is therefore something of a benchmark of quality—seeing it on a label tells you the product has aged at least two years and meets all the other federal requirements.
Think of it this way: How does the flavor of a slice of rye bread differ from the flavor of a piece of cornbread? Whiskey is actually much the same way—whereas your classic cornbread recipe is a bit sweeter, with a buttery and slightly nutty quality, rye bread is more sharply distinctive, with a peppery note that makes it a classic component in something like a patty melt. Rye whiskey, come to think of it, would also be delicious with a patty melt—that’s an experiment I’d like to conduct!
In all seriousness, though, the flavor profile of rye whiskey does indeed mirror the base grain in this way, especially in a whiskey made with a very high percentage of rye. Whereas the classic profile of bourbon accentuates corny sweetness, vanilla, toffee, nuttiness and perhaps a touch of smoke or roast, rye is more likely to present as a bit more dry and less rich, with more spicy and fruity elements. This can include fruity notes like apple or citrus, whereas the commonly mentioned “rye spice” can commonly remind people of pepper, or fennel, or anise.
This has occasionally led to the perception in some drinkers that bourbon is more suited to neat drinking than rye, but I would strongly disagree—it’s simply a different flavor profile, and one that you may find you enjoy just as much or even more than bourbon. I for one love the spicy flavors of rye, and I’m just as likely to drink it neat as I am with other styles of whiskey.
By all means, try your rye whiskey neat—such as this Catoctin Creek, a distillery that specializes in rye.
At the same time, the drier profile of rye has historically made it the most common choice for many classic whiskey cocktails, such as the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned or the Sazerac. These cocktails all include the addition of sugar or sweet mixers such as vermouth, which many mixologists believe work better with the drier, more spicy profile of rye. These bartenders would argue that bourbon makes these drinks too cloyingly sweet or rich, but once again it’s ultimately a matter of taste. There’s no doubt, however, that modern mixology has played a large part in rye whiskey’s resurgence.
The ways one can make rye in the U.S. vary quite a bit, given that the only requirement on the mash bill is the aforementioned “51% rye” minimum. This means you can make a rye whiskey that is 51% rye and 49% corn, and it’s still just as much a “rye whiskey” as a spirit made from 100% rye, in the eyes of the government.
Making a whiskey with 100% rye is indeed possible, and those spirits are typically a very pure example of the flavor of rye, but they’re comparatively rare for a few reasons. The biggest reason is a practical one related to production—it’s more difficult to ferment a mash of 100% rye because it has fewer of the enzymes that aid in converting starches to sugars for fermentation. Adding a little bit of malted barley, on the other hand, introduces enzymes that make fermentation easier and more efficient, although the same thing can now be achieved with commercial enzymes. As a result, 100% rye whiskeys have become more common over time. Still, much of the rye on the market has at least a little bit of malted barley—notably the “95-5” rye made by the massive distillery at MGP of Indiana, which supplies many craft distilleries with sourced rye whiskey.
Also on the table are whiskeys made from malted rye, rather than the more common unmalted rye. In comparison with standard rye whiskeys, spirits made from malted rye typically present as sweeter, with more of a bready, doughy, biscuity flavor profile that is particularly distinctive. Distillers may also use a small portion of malted rye as an accent atop their standard rye whiskey.
Historically, rye whiskey in the U.S has been roughly broken up into a few different regional archetypes, although some of these terms are on the archaic side now.
— Monongahela rye is the name given to Pennsylvania rye whiskey, in what was the cradle of the country’s first big rye whiskey boom. The name refers to the Monongahela River, which flows into Pittsburgh, which housed many of the early rye distilleries. Most of these whiskeys were mashes of solely rye and malted barley, and this may also have been the location of the first oak-aged American ryes by the end of the 1700s. Along with Maryland rye, this was the working American definition of “rye whiskey” for at least the first half of the 1800s.
— Maryland rye whiskey was the primary competition to Pennsylvania’s rye whiskeys, and the two shared much in common, although Maryland rye was significantly more likely to incorporate additional grains such as corn into its mash bill. According to the Maryland Distiller’s Guild: “The recipe is loose, but it has a mash bill of mostly rye, a lot of corn, and a little of something else, usually malted barley but could be wheat or another grain. The recipes vary, and they always have, but it’s the spicy rye cushioned with the sweet corn and just a little hint of one or two other grains that gives Maryland Rye Whiskey its dynamic taste.”
All in all, the expected Maryland rye profile is therefore a little bit sweeter and a little bit softer than Monongahela rye. The “Maryland rye” term has been revived in a visible way in more recent years by craft distillers such as Baltimore’s Sagamore Spirit, who have identified with the term.
— Kentucky rye whiskey was a later development, but eventually became the go-to example that most consumers would associate with rye whiskey in the U.S. In fact, as recently as a decade or two ago, the vast majority of the rye you’d see on store shelves (often bottom shelves) was Kentucky-style rye.
Kentucky style rye is unique in the fact that it traditionally uses the lowest possible percentage of rye in the mash—the 51% federally required—while filling out the rest of the mash bill with lots of corn and a touch of malted barley. This should be no surprise, given Kentucky’s bourbon roots, and the association of the state with the corn-based bourbon flavor profile. These 51% ryes from major Kentucky whiskey producers such as Jim Beam are distinctive in their flavor profile, blurring the lines between the corny sweetness of bourbon and the spice of rye.
This still of rye is still quite common today, although some whiskey geeks will derogatorily refer to it as “barely legal” rye thanks to the lower percentage of that grain in the mash. As high-percentage ryes have become more popular with mixologists and drinkers, it has also caused some Kentucky distilleries to begin experimenting with upping the rye percentage of their rye whiskeys.
Kentucky rye whiskeys, both new and old.
— More than anything else, craft rye whiskeys in every state have now broadened the category via experimentation, making countless whiskeys that don’t fit any particular regional style. This has led to a greater degree of variation within rye whiskey as a whole, but at the same time there are also new regional styles that continue to emerge. In particular, Empire rye is the new term formally created by a group of New York distilleries to describe a crop of young rye whiskeys that must be made from at least 75% New York-grown rye grain and aged in newly charred barrels for at least two years. They’re referring to this as “the whiskey style of New York,” establishing a precedent for other states to do the same.
You now know what to expect when it comes to rye whiskey from the U.S., but a special note is required when it comes to the word “rye” on Canadian whiskey bottles.
Historically, rye was an important grain for Canadian whiskey distillation, to the point that the term “rye” became a colloquial for all whiskey in general, regardless of whether it was made primarily with rye or other grains. Today, that somewhat confusing language persists, as a Canadian distillery can legally choose to label a bottle as either “Canadian whiskey” or “rye whiskey” as long as it “possesses the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whiskey,” which I believe you’ll agree is a vague measuring stick.
Most Canadian whiskey today exists as blended whiskey—which we wrote about in far more detail recently—which contains high-proof base whiskey made from corn or wheat, blended with a smaller amount of lower-proof “flavoring whiskey” that is often made from rye. This gives an important element of rye flavor to classic Canadian blended whiskey brands such as Canadian Club and others, but these whiskeys are ultimately far less defined by rye than any American straight rye whiskey would be. Note, however, that 100% rye whiskeys are becoming more common in Canada as well—you’ll just want to look for examples that don’t include the word “blended,” if you want a bigger rye experience.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.