Rye whiskey’s revival

27 July, 2023

Recently on the verge of disappearing, rye whiskey is back winning hearts and minds thanks largely to the cocktail culture revival.

Nearly forgotten, America’s original style of whiskey is undoubtedly back. Since its return, the rye whiskey category has been developing rapidly, with an ever-increasing number of new producers bringing a new approach to this traditional style, and with a greater focus on regionality, and on the grain itself. The result is a broader flavour profile across the category, and a willingness from consumers to pay more too.

“It's finally starting to get the recognition it deserves,” says Arizona Distilling co-owner Jon Eagan. “Bourbon has been so hyped over the past decade or more that it hasn’t really given any breathing room to other American whiskeys. But if there’s one leading the charge and taking some of that ground, it’s rye.”

“Demand for US rye whiskey has risen over the past 15 years, along with the growth of cocktail culture and a spirit of innovation at both craft and large distillers,” says Matt Krusemark, vice president of distilling solutions sales for the leading producer of rye whiskey in the US, MGP Ingredients. “Today, distillers are pushing the boundaries of traditional ryes with the use of local or heritage grains, cask finishes, age statements and other characteristics that evoke quality.”

It wasn’t long ago, however, that rye whiskey was almost non-existent, nearly extinguished by a series of factors, not least Prohibition. And no one seemed to care until relatively recently, around the time interest was growing in classic cocktails, many originally made with rye.

“The rise of rye whiskey is partly due to the increasing popularity of cocktails such as the Manhattan, and the introduction by bartenders of pre-Prohibition cocktails like La Louisiane, Sazerac, Toronto and Vieux Carre,” says Michele Reina, consultant and international on-trade specialist and brand educator for Luxco and MGP.

Dave Schmier remembers introducing Redemption Rye in the US in 2010. “We had to educate people in the trade – retailers and bartenders who knew what was up, but they had no idea,” he says. “Rye was decimated. At the time, a good retail store might have stocked two bottles, and often they had none.”

Schmier has since founded American whiskey company Proof and Wood, with rye whiskeys under his Deadwood and Roulette Rye brands, as well as The Senator barrel proof straight rye whiskey, part of the DC Collection. “What’s beautiful right now is there are so many new expressions of rye from smaller and bigger distillers,” he says.

This greater number of producers means that rye whiskey can offer a broader spectrum of flavour, believes Stephen Beam, co-founder of Limestone Branch Distillery. “Until recently, rye whiskey in the US was produced by only a handful of large distilleries,” he says.

“These distilleries make some exceptional rye, but it is going to fall within their flavour profiles. It’s exciting to see what small distilleries can create when unencumbered by corporate bureaucracy.” More variety in rye whiskey flavours bodes well for the category, he adds. “As rye expands from the relatively narrow profile of the past 50 years, which leaned toward peppery and spicy, into the more nuanced profiles that are now emerging, rye will gain in popularity. There is a whole world of rye profiles yet to be rediscovered.”

Entry point

Meanwhile, those big brands continue to offer an entry point into the category, says Jen Baernreuther, commercial director of Speciality Drinks. “There is a continued demand for heritage brands with a strong brand story and range extensions from more well-known bourbon brands like Bulleit, Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey,” she says. “The confidence in these brands provides a good exploratory first step into rye for consumers who trust these producers and are looking to try something new.”

The influx of new producers, and therefore younger rye whiskeys, is helping to move the category in a more premium direction. “Younger expressions are becoming more popular, and consumers are more open-minded about grain-driven flavour profiles, but consumers are also becoming more aware of how ageing affects flavour development, resulting in higher demand for older rye whiskey, along with single-barrel and cask-strength whiskies,” says Reina.

Jeff Kozak, chief executive at Whistlepig Whiskey, confirms this, saying that the new rye offerings from craft distillers, usually released relatively young, “have further elevated Whistlepig’s premium offerings”.

“Today’s whiskey drinkers are willing to spend time, effort and money to get something that is truly special,” adds Beam. “This consumer interest allows distillers to push the envelope and use more expensive grains, cooperage and techniques to provide that special whiskey.”

At Speciality Drinks, Baernreuther is also seeing this move towards more premium rye. “Consumer awareness of American ryes such as Michter’s and Whistlepig are raising the profile, as well as the willingness to spend on a higher-priced expression,” she says.

Meanwhile, as the category grows, so does the focus on regionality particularly in those regions with rye-producing heritage. “Indiana still dominates the rye whiskey market, but other regions are getting a bigger share,” says Reina. “New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Colorado distilleries have embraced their rye whiskey history, resulting in more craft distilleries and different styles of whiskey available on the market.”

Beam sees the innovation in the category as an opportunity for distillers to showcase their individual regions. “Distillers are experimenting with different types of stills, expanding varieties of rye, and putting their own signature style to task. I am excited to see what whiskies will come from them, reflecting the terroir of different regions of the country.”

Meanwhile, Chad Albertson, international sales manager for Sagamore Spirit in Maryland, believes there’s still a way to go when it comes to regionality. “It’s not there yet, although we keep banging that drum,” he says.

Sagamore’s ties to Maryland are inextricably linked with the history of rye whiskey production in the region. As Albertson explains, European settlers first brought distillation and farming techniques to the regions of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. “Our whole mission is to inspire the local passion for Maryland rye whiskey. I equate it to Scotch, and people knowing different areas of Scotland. You also have Maryland rye, Pennsylvania rye, New York rye… all with different styles,” he says.

A greater focus on regionality doesn’t automatically mean that producers are able to distill with locally-grown grains, although there are those that are looking to increase the amount of local rye they use, including Sagamore.

“We’re working on it,” says Albertson. “A couple of years back we decided that we wanted to source rye locally, so we got in touch with the University of Maryland. Everyone was saying that there’s no incentive for farmers to grow rye, that it’s not easy to grow and not subsidised.”

The team have persisted nevertheless, coming up with a system that incentivises farmers. “We decided to flip the capitalist model upside down, and buy grain upfront from the farmers, and also guarantee their price, regardless of the yield.”

Sustainable option

Woodford Reserve has recently made a similar move, making a five-year commitment to purchase rye grain from local farmers, aiming to bring rye production back to Kentucky, as well as provide a more sustainable option to whiskey producers in the state.

Working with the University of Kentucky, the intention is to find a rye variety well suited to Kentucky’s climate, where relatively high temperatures and humidity aren’t necessarily ideal for rye farming. The plan also includes running distillation trials on 10 varieties of rye, to determine differences in their flavour.

Stephen Beam reports similar initiatives elsewhere. “Distillers are teaming up with farmers such as Robert McDonald of Pennsylvania who are growing heirloom grains, including Rosen rye, which was popular with distillers in the last century but had fallen out of favour.”

In the meantime, producers including Arizona Distilling Co are prioritising the quality of the whiskey over the provenance of its grains. “We grow some decent rye in Arizona, don’t get me wrong, but it’s at specific elevations and environments, and we don't do it at a huge scale – there’s just so much opportunity agriculturally to leverage your land for better returns and better food,” says Eagan. “I don’t want that to preclude us from using great grains. Local’s great, but first and foremost, the quality of your product should be paramount.”

All the while, demand for US rye whiskey continues to grow around the world. “The UK market is probably the most closely in lockstep with the US market,” continues Eagan, who adds that Germany is another strong market for American rye.

Kozak attributes this growth of rye outside of the US, in part, to the same thing that helped to bring rye back in the first place. “We are definitely seeing increased demand and interest outside of the US as cocktail culture continues to gain steam.”

Looking ahead, Whistlepig’s Kozak is optimistic about rye whiskey, and rightly so. “I think it will continue to grow and challenge the bourbon category, to continue to push boundaries of the definition of American whiskey.”

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