For much of the past century, rye whis key has been the redheaded stepchild of America’s brown-spirits clan, as attention and accolades were showered upon corn-based bourbon and its signature smoothness and sweetness.
But rye whiskey is made with at least 51 percent rye, a hearty, resilient grain that gives the spirit a lean, peppery profile and a crisp, palate drying character. It’s as if bourbon decided to go punk rock. However, rye whiskey’s birth dates back to an era long before the Ramones. It gained in popularity after the American Revolution, when imports of molasses (the raw ingredient for rum, which was then America’s favored spirit) became expensive or erratic. Looking to fill the boozy void, intrepid Irish and Scottish settlers—and even George Washington—distilled whiskey made from the bountiful fields of rye. The spicy, aromatic spirit caught on, and over the next 150 years it became the nation’s dominant distilled inebriant, making its home in iconic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Sazerac.
Post-Prohibition, few rye distilleries reopened, and American tastes changed from rough-and-tumble rye to lighter spirits. But in the past decade, rye has begun its slow, spicy climb upward. Credit goes to bartenders, who began unearthing and re-creating vintage recipes.
While excellent old-guard brands such as the rich and peppery 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye, and the dry, lightly spicy Old Overholt never ceased pro duction, the framework of the modern rye resurgence was laid in 1996, when Anchor Distilling Company debuted its liquid time machine: Old Potrero single malt whiskey, which re-creates an eighteenth-century spirit that Washington might’ve been proud to distill. The secret is aging the all-rye spirit in oak barrels that are lightly toasted, not charred to a crisp. But be careful when sipping Potrero: It’s bottled without being diluted, so you’ll need to add a dollop of water or an ice cube to open up the vibrant, spicy flavor. (The distillery also offers a nineteenth-century version, which is aged in charred-oak barrels. You’ll taste spicy flavors, and a bit of the charred intensity as well.)
Nowadays, “The rye category has exploded,” says Bill Owens, the president of the American Distilling Institute. In Iowa, the balanced, butterscotch-kissed Templeton Rye is crafted according to a recipe dating back to the Prohibition era. Utah’s High West marries two-yearold and 16-year-old ryes to create its smooth, cinnamon-accented Double Rye. Chicago’s Koval Distillery crafts the Lion’s Pride Organic rye whiskey, which is made with 100 percent rye grain and aged in either lightly toasted or heavily charred new American-oak barrels.
While small-batch rye whiskey can be revelatory, those relatively rare bottles can require loads of leg work to uncover. For a worthy, widely available alter native, try Knob Creek’s newly released, 100-proof rye whiskey version. It’s a warming wonder, with a dry, herbal character and plenty of spice to boot. Bulleit Rye checks in at 90 proof, trading boozy oomph for a luscious mouthfeel, notes of cherries, and a lovely, lingering pep pery spice. Then there’s the curiously appealing Tap 357. The Canadian-born rye whiskey (it’s made with a lower percentage of the grain than its American counterparts) is blended with maple syrup harvested in Quebec, resulting in a smooth, layered flavor that’s somewhat akin to drinking breakfast. Like its fellow whiskeys, this is rye reenvisioned.