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The Serious Eats Guide to Rye Whiskey

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I don't know about any of you, but I'm a boozer who likes to drink rye whiskey year 'round. Winter, summer, whatever, no day's too hot to enjoy a nice rye old-fashioned. But normal people, I hear, think of rye as a cold-weather treat. Its spicy, robust character and bone-dry palate certainly help take the edge off a brisk, autumn day. And since we in the Northeast have had several such days lately, it's time to talk all things rye.

While you're Halloween-shopping for sparkle-vampire costumes and candy corn, you're probably ready to pop into your local likker shop for grand old rye whiskey. Today, I'll get you up to speed on rye's origins, its future, what makes it unique, and how it's made.

What Is Rye?

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An ear of rye. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

According to the United States government, rye whiskey sold in the United States must meet these requirements:

  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% rye.
  • Aged in new charred-oak barrels.
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). In practice, most rye is distilled out at a lower proof than this.
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at a proof no higher than 125 (62.5% ABV).
  • Bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV).

Rye needs to be, as noted, 51% rye. The remaining 49% includes other grains. Usually, those grains include corn, wheat, malted rye, and malted barley, in any combination. Some distilleries, though, have experimented with rice, oats, and other grains. In ryes from large producers, though, the proportions are typically about 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley.

Like bourbon, the rules on rye require the use of new charred-oak barrels. This allows the barrel to impart more of its own flavors of oak, caramel, and vanilla into the whiskey than you get with Scotch, which generally uses second-hand barrels.

What About Canadian?

Remember the first episode of Mad Men? Joan is lecturing Peggy on her new role as secretary, while giving her a tour of the office. Then ...

Joan: I don't know what your goals are, but don't over-do it with the perfume. Keep a fifth of something in your desk. Mr. Draper drinks rye. Also, invest in some aspirin, some band-aids, and a needle and thread.

Peggy whips out a steno-pad and starts writing.

Peggy: Rye is Canadian, right?

Joan: You better find out.

Why do some people, even today, associate rye whiskey with Canadian? Canadian whisky was traditionally a high-rye product, with a fairly large amount of rye in the mash bill, although not necessarily a majority. It therefore became known in the shorthand as "rye."

However, to call Canadian whisky "rye" is somewhat misleading, for not all Canadian products have a high amount of rye in them—or, to be accurate, any rye at all. I'll cover the world of Canadian hooch in a future post, but for now, it's enough to say that Canadian and rye are not interchangable terms, and nothing I say in this article is generally applicable to Canadian whisky. There are a couple of Canadian ryes that are primarily or entirely made of rye grain, but they're the exception.

How Rye Whiskey Is Made

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Bininger's "Old Times" family rye, distilled in 1848...designed for family & medicinal use [Photograph: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division]

In my article on bourbon whiskey, I covered bourbon's distillation process in depth. Because rye is distilled using the same methods, I won't repeat all that information here; if you want full details, click back to the earlier post. However, I will summarize the process.

Like bourbon, rye starts with a "mash bill," a blend of grains that forms the basis of the whiskey. Rye's mash bill must, by law, consist of at least 51% rye. Most rye whiskeys use malted barley or corn as the other grains.

As with bourbon, ground grain is mixed with water and a bit of mash from a previous distillation, in what's known as a sour-mash process. This introduces yeasts from the previous distillation. In baking terms, it's similar to using a sourdough starter to begin the fermentation process. The sour-mash process has two advantages: first, it creates a consistent environment for yeast from batch to batch, helping ensure that each batch of whiskey has a consistent flavor and aroma with batches that came before. Second, it lowers the pH of the batch, which helps the yeasts in the batch ferment the mash more efficiently, boosting a higher yield of alcohol.

After the sour mash goes in, fresh yeast is added and the mixture is fermented. It then goes through the distillation process and then it's pumped into barrels to be aged. (Again, there's more detail on this in the bourbon post from a few months ago.)

What Is Straight Rye?

In the bourbon article, I explained the term "straight bourbon." You might not see the term "straight rye" used as often on rye labels as you do in bourbon, but some manufacturers do use the term, so it's worth explaining again what makes a whiskey "straight."

Straight rye must meet all the legal requirements of regular rye, but it has a couple of extra requirements that regular rye lacks:

  • Straight rye must be aged at least two years. If it is aged less than four years, the bottle must carry an age statement. The corollary to this is, if a bottle labeled "straight rye" carries no age statement, the whiskey is aged at least four years. (Some straight ryes aged longer than four years carry age statements. This is mainly for marketing purposes, but if you prefer older whiskeys, you may find it informative.)
  • Straight rye may contain no added colorings, flavorings, or additional spirits.
  • If a straight rye carries an age statement, it carries the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. In other words, if a distillery blends several barrels of rye to make a batch for bottling, the age on the bottle refers to the whiskey from the youngest barrel. Some whiskey may be older.

History of Rye

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The early distilling industry in colonial America grew up around rum, starting in the mid-1600s. It would take a hundred years, and the beginnings of revolution, for whiskey to begin to take hold. The true king of Colonial America wasn't named George but Rum, and King Rum held sway in the colonies until the Revolution. A British blockade of colonial ports dried up the supply of molasses from the West Indies, which led distillers to convert their operations to whiskey making.

But farmers found that the barley of their ancestral homes didn't grow well in Colonial soil, and so they turned to crops that grew very well in what became the Eastern United States—rye and corn.

Distilling gave farmers several advantages. First, it allowed them to use up excess grain instead of letting it rot. Next, turning grain into alcohol adds value to the product, and so farmers could get considerably more money for whiskey than for raw grain. Finally, grain is laborious to transport to market, but booze is relatively easy to move around.

The media have made much lately of the beer brewed in the Obama White House, but as you probably know, America's earliest presidents weren't just brewers but also distillers and winemakers. George Washington made rye at his Mount Vernon estate, and recently a group of craft distillers came together to re-create his recipe.

Styles of Rye

The rye whiskeys on the market today is all over the map in terms of style and flavor. Some are big and spicy; others rounder and softer. Each distillery making rye is pretty much free to do whatever they like. Large Kentucky distilleries generally use the 51%–39%–10% formula I mentioned earlier—or something like it, anyway. Craft distilleries and bottlers are experimenting with other options, including some that ratchet the rye up to 100%.

Before Prohibition, however, there were distinctly unique, regional styles that characterized much of the rye whiskey on the market. These styles held on for a while even after Prohibition, but with production eventually consolidating in Kentucky, these regional styles eventually died out. It's pretty difficult to find much information about these classic styles; what I'm going to present here is at best a sketch. I invite anyone with more information to leave a comment.

First, though, let me back up a bit and look at Washington's recipe: 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley. And I'll compare that to the typical recipe of today: 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% barley. The rye, of course, provides the flavor backbone of the whiskey. Corn adds sweetness. Barley's role in a bourbon or rye is to contribute the enzymes that convert starches to sugars, and thus drive the fermentation process.

Pennsylvania, a.k.a. Monongahela

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Looking upstream along the Monongahela River from Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Originally, Pennsylvania-style rye, also known as Monongahela-style, was a full-on rye bomb of a whiskey, 100% rye. It was a blend of malted and unmalted rye, with no corn or barley. The malted rye served the same role that malting provides in making Scotch; malting prodded along the fermentation process by providing the enzymes that open up the grain kernels and convert starches to sugars.

By the end of the 19th century, though, Pennsylvania distillers moved from malted rye to malted barley in their mash bills. Anywhere from 80–95% was unmalted rye, with malted barley as the remainder. Still no corn.

Some Monongahela-style ryes may have used sweet mash in the fermentation process. In sweet-mash whiskeymaking, only fresh yeast is used, instead of sour mash from previous fermentations. Sweet mash has a higher pH than sour, which means it ferments differently, creating subtly different flavor profiles in the whiskey.

Nevertheless, by the 20th century, all Pennsylvania rye distillers had switched over to the sour-mash process.

The flavor profile would, generally speaking, have been dry and spicy. Since most modern ryes have a larger amount of corn in the recipe than did Monongahela ryes, the Pennsylvania style would have tasted much less sweet than most of today's ryes.

Old Overholt and Rittenhouse were initially Monongahela ryes, but both are produced now in Kentucky, and neither brand maintains the original Monongahela-style recipes and mash bills. Both are excellent ryes, especially at their price points, but don't look to either one if you're hoping to taste history.

The last distillery making Monongahela rye closed in the 1980s. Monongahela rye meets a modern update in Dad's Hat Rye, a whiskey out of Eastern Pennsylvania. Dad's Hat has a mash bill of 80% rye, 15% malted barley, and 5% malted rye. It's aged in small barrels (so-called quarter casks) for six months. The company is also reportedly working on a straight rye that will be aged in standard barrels for at least two years.

Maryland

Softer, rounder, brighter, and more floral than Monongahela, Maryland rye died as a style in the 1970s and early '80s. What I can't seem to find anywhere in my research is what the mash bill of the Maryland style was. I assume from reading about its flavor profile that it was a little lighter on the rye than the Pennsylvania style, and perhaps had some corn in it as well, but still less so than most of today's major rye brands.

Today, the Leopold Brothers distillery is attempting to resurrect a Maryland-style rye. According to a post in the Straight Bourbon forums, Leopold's rye has a mash bill of around 65% rye, 20% malted barley, and 15% corn. The current Leopold bottling is a young whiskey, but Leopold has set aside a portion of its stocks for longer aging, though, and the older rye should be available in about 3 years.

Brands of Rye

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This is by no means a complete list of rye brands, but here's a basic guide to major distillers and a sampling of some of the craft ryes available.

MGP/LDI

First, though, here's an interesting fact you might not know about the whiskey industry. In Lawrenceburg, Indiana (in the southeast corner of the state, near its borders with Ohio and Kentucky), sits a massive distillery, formerly owned by Seagrams. Until recently, the facility was known as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, or LDI, and you'll find that some whiskey writers still refer to it as such.

The previous owners sold the plant recently, however, and it's now known as MGP Ingredients. MGP stands for Midwest Grain Products, and that gives you an indication of what the company does; it makes food, alcohol (both for beverages and for fuels), and bioplastics. Among its outputs are massive quantities of neutral grain spirits that are used in both vodkas and gins.

MGP/LDI also makes whiskey. Two main products come from its whiskey plant, and there's a strong chance you've tasted them, without realizing it. The first is a high-rye bourbon. This term refers to a bourbon with a large amount of rye grain in the mash bill. From the MGP plant in Indiana, that means the bourbon is 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% malted barley.

The other product is what I'll be talking about here: rye whiskey. The MGP product is 95% rye and 5% malted barley.

As you might know, there are several rye whiskey products on the market right now that contain 95% rye. All of them are made at MGP/LDI; here's a list:

Templeton Rye: The Templeton website tells a fun story about Templeton, Iowa; its rye grain crops; and its bootleg-rye recipe that was popular with Al Capone during Prohibition. And if you read the story without paying close attention, you might believe that Templeton Rye is made in Iowa, the way it was during Prohibition. Now, Templeton Rye Spirits, Inc., has built a distillery in Iowa and is starting to make small amounts of product there using locally sourced grain; I assume this product will eventually be for sale at the distillery itself. But the juice you buy at your liquor store is made in Indiana, not Iowa.

Redemption: This company has two products, a rye and a high-rye bourbon. You can guess where they're made.

Bulleit Rye: This may be the biggest surprise on the list; it's almost certainly the best-known brand name on the list. Bulleit's bourbon is a Bluegrass product, but its rye is all Hoosier.

Willett: The current Willett brand is owned by a company called Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, which despite its name, doesn't do much distilling at present. KBD buys whiskey from other producers and bottles it under various names. Willett's 95% rye bottling is made in Lawrenceburg. KBD does have a distillation plant of its own, though, which it brought back into small production earlier this year. But since whiskey is a well-aged product, you shouldn't look for any KBD-distilled whiskey for several years.

High West: High West, like Willett/KBD, buys its whiskeys from other sources and blends them to spec, to create unique and inventive bottlings. Not all of High West's products originate in Lawrenceburg, but some do, notably its recent Campfire release, a Frankenweenie blend of MGP's rye and high-rye bourbon, along with a small amount of peaty Scotch, from the Scottish mainland. (Andrew Strenio reviewed it in this space; incidentally, I thought Campfire was a fascinating experiment, but I don't seem to have liked it as much as Andrew. I generally love High West's stuff, but this one just didn't quite work for me.)

George Dickel Rye?: Diageo just announced this week that its George Dickel brand of Tennessee whiskey will be unveiling a new rye in November. It's 90 proof and has a mashbill that's 95% rye and 5% malted barley. Sound familiar? There's no specific word that it's made in Indiana instead of Tennessee, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Now, this raises a question: with all these products coming from MGP Ingredients, what's the difference between them? I don't honestly know the answer to that question, and reading the various whiskey blogs, magazines, and websites, I can't seem to find out.

I don't know whether the brands buy unaged stocks (white dog) and age it themselves, to spec. If that's true, there are various aging techniques a brand can use to make a unique product. Some brands are higher proof than others, which means they're less watered down. That's a legitimate difference between brands.

Okay, with LDI/MGP behind us, I'll move on to other distilleries. Most of these are pretty straightforward; all the major brands make and bottle their own products, and all the major brands are roughly of a similar mash bill: 51% rye, 39% corn, 10% barley. I'll make note of any exceptions.

Beam Inc:

  • Jim Beam Rye—80 proof
  • Knob Creek Rye—100 proof
  • Old Overholt—80 proof only; historically, OO was available as a 100-proof product.
  • (ri)1—92 proof

Heaven Hill:

  • Rittenhouse—80 proof; 100 proof.
  • Pikesville Supreme—80 proof

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (bottler only; these whiskeys are made elsewhere and sold by other companies):

  • Black Maple Hill—sold at various ages (up to 23 years) and at various proofs
  • Michter's Rye—various bottlings

Sazerac Company/Buffalo Trace Distillery:

  • Sazerac—6 year, 90 proof; 18 year, 90 proof
  • Thomas H. Handy—seasonal release; age and proof vary from release to release; the 2012 release was distilled in 2006 and is bottled at 132.4 proof. Yes, that's 66.2% abv. Watch out for that .2 percent!
  • Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye—most Van Winkle products are currently made at Buffalo Trace, under contract for Van Winkle. Details vary by year.

Wild Turkey/Austin Nichols:

  • Wild Turkey—81 proof, 101 proof. The latter is in limited supply at present.
  • Russell's Reserve—6 years old, 90 proof.

Anchor Distilling—from the company that created Anchor Steam Beer and Junipero Gin, these are some unique and innovative whiskeys, although they're not for everyone:

  • Old Potrero Straight Rye—pot-distilled; 100% malted rye; 90 proof; aged in charred oak barrels
  • Old Potrero 18th Century Whiskey—pot-distilled; 100% malted rye; 102.4 proof; aged in uncharred oak
  • Old Potrero Hotaling's Single Malt Whiskey—pot-distilled; 100% malted rye; 100 proof; aged for 11 years in charred oak barrels

Dad's Hat—90 proof; aged six months; 80% rye, 15% malted barley, and 5% malted rye

Leopold's—86 proof; 65% rye, 20% malted barley, and 15% corn

WhistlePig—100 proof; 10 years old; 100% rye. A Canadian rye from Vermont. Wait, what? WhistlePig is a new Vermont distillery that developed its first product by purchasing a stock of aged, Canadian rye and then bottling it.

Jefferson's—94 proof; 10 years old; 100% rye. Like the WhistlePig, this is also sourced from an unnamed Canadian distillery. It may be the same whiskey, just with more water added.

Whew, that's a lot about rye. I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a cocktail.

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