Rye is a spirit with lots of history.
The peppery drink was a favorite of the forefathers of the U.S., including President George Washington, and was a staple right up until Prohibition.
But rye distillers never recovered from that 13-year dry spell, and until recently, the spirit was all but extinct. Now, with bespoke bars and craft cocktails making everything old new again, it is having a more-than-triumphant return to the top shelf.
Between 2009 and 2017, sales of the spirit rose a whopping 934%, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Craft distillers have led the rye trend, but bigger brands such as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Bulleit have joined in as well.
The rise in rye “has amazed everyone in the industry,” albeit pleasantly, says Wes Henderson, co-founder of Angel’s Envy distillery in Louisville, Ky.
“If you’d asked me 10 years ago if rye would even still be around, I would have said, ‘Hell, no,’ ” he says. “But it makes sense in terms of the premiumization of spirits and the rise of the classic cocktail.”
Colin Spoelman, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Kings County Distillery, agrees. “We’re just coming off a time when the cocktail culture was looking back rather than forward,” he says. “Bartenders got interested in rye because it’s called for in so many classic cocktails.”
To be a rye, the spirit must be made from at least 51% rye grain; the higher the percentage, the more rye flavor. Craft ryes, made in small batches, are traditionally more “grain forward,” says Spoelman, and have “that sort of rich mouthfeel.”
Kings Distillery has teamed up with five other New York distilleries to create a standard Empire Rye within the state, which calls for 80% New York–grown rye and 20% barley malt and is aged two years in charred-oak barrels, giving it notes of maple, mint, and cut grass with a spicy finish.
At Angel’s Envy, Henderson started making rye once he realized how wrong he was about its future. His version is made from 95% rye and finished in Caribbean rum barrels, combining “the classic rye spice with the sweetness of the rum.”
Rye is just one of many whiskies made at Angel’s Envy and Kings Distillery, but WhistlePig in Vermont is dedicated to rye alone. At what was once a dairy farm, master distiller Dave Pickerell has created a collection of ryes, including its annual FarmStock estate release, which is made with the distillery’s own grain and finished in Vermont white oak barrels.
Rye can be pricier than other spirits. WhistlePig’s FarmStock starts at $69 a fifth, but its premium whiskies can cost $300 or more.
The spirit can be served in a number of ways. Rye brings its spicy notes to yesterday’s tipples, like Old Fashioneds or Sazeracs, and mixologists are making it their own with modern recipes.