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Rye whiskey has a long history as one of America’s favorite spirits, going back as far as the Revolutionary War. More recently, rye has gone through a renaissance as more premium brands and boutique batches are sitting on store shelves than ever before, just waiting to be discovered.
Let’s take a hard look at this American classic, chart its rise and fall as the whiskey of choice, and examine exactly what makes rye such an appealing, exciting and versatile spirit.
By all accounts, rye whiskey was born at the same time as America. When the colonies were still under British rule, rum was king. However, after the initial uprisings of the revolution, the British blockaded American ports and put a stop to the importation of the molasses that fueled the American rum industry. Determined not to be without anything to drink (especially on the cusp of war), the colonists started to experiment distilling with other plants, one of the most popular of which was ryegrass.
One of the reasons that the rye distillate became so popular is because ryegrass is an excellent marginal crop. It takes droughts, cold snaps, and farmland with poor, rocky soil in stride. Rye happily grows anywhere and everywhere, and it grows very fast. Early Americans planted as much as they could, and some of the founding fathers were even known for their rye plantations. In fact, George Washington grew rye and used it to make whiskey on his plantation at Mount Vernon (the still is still operating) producing one of the very first brands of rye whiskey in history.
For over a century, rye whiskey remained America’s most popular drink. Unfortunately, that only set it up to become one of the biggest victims of Prohibition. As the government clamped down on alcohol in the 1920’s, rye was one of the first to go. Viewed as a low-class, common drink at the time, people preferred something more prestigious if they were going to have to pay top-dollar and risk legal ramification to get their alcoholic fix. Even after prohibition was lifted, rye whiskey never recovered as an entire generation of potential drinkers was lost.
More recently, though, rye has enjoyed an upswing. In 2006, 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye, which sold at the time for $13 per fifth, was named the Whiskey of the Year. Since then, more and more distilleries have been turning out their own attempts at rye whiskey, and they’ve been looking to its glorious past for inspiration. In fact, one of the very first ryes to hit the market at that time, although only produced in boutique amounts, was George Washington’s very own Mount Vernon variety using a formula pulled straight from the history books.
Rye’s bold yet complex flavor has also made it a winner for modern mixologists. Depending on the region where it's produced, rye whiskey can favor spicy or fruity notes giving it an intriguing range of flavor. For instance, Pennsylvania’s version, which uses more malted rye in the mash, tends to produce sweeter, fruitier notes with a smooth finish, while Maryland ryes feature notes of smoky oak, spice and have a fuller body.
Regardless of where it's distilled, all American rye whiskies have a few things in common. They’re produced in the fashion of bourbon, with at least 51% rye content and bottled at a minimum of 80-proof. Rye that spends 2-years aging in charred oak barrels can be called “straight” rye whiskey and, much like bourbon, the flavors mellow considerably and the color deepens after a few years resting on charcoal.
Rye whiskey puts a great twist on traditional bourbon cocktails. Depending on the origin of the rye, either deep, spicy notes or fruity citrus flavors will be duly noted. See some of our standard cocktail suggestions below to get our recommendations on which sorts of ryes and brands work best for your favorite drink.
Since a Manhattan is such a straightforward cocktail, it really pays to use the best rye you can get your hands on. Budget buyers should check out Rittenhouse, but there’s no denying that a more luxurious rye, like Koval, makes a superior Manhattan. Koval’s spicy notes are nicely balanced by the sweet red vermouth, and a Manhattan made with American rye is an excellent alternative to the flatter flavors of those mixed up with Canadian whisky.
- 5 ML Rye Whiskey
- 2 ML Sweet Red Vermouth
- Dash of Angostura Bitters
- Maraschino Cherry for Garnish
A rye Manhattan is stirred over ice, strained into a chilled glass, garnished with a maraschino cherry and served straight up.
The Sazerac is a New Orleans favorite, and it was historically made with rye when cognac became difficult to import. Although it’s more typical today to have a Sazerac made with cognac or a cognac bourbon mix, this cocktail really shines when it’s made with a bright, sharp and spicy rye like Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout.
- 5 ML Rye Whiskey
- 1 ML Absinthe
- 1 Sugar Cube
- 3 Dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
- Lemon Peel for Garnish
A rye Sazerac is prepared by rinsing the inside of an Old Fashioned glass with absinthe, filling it with crushed ice, and setting it to one side while you prepare the rest of the drink in a cocktail shaker.
Add the rye, sugar cube and bitters into the shaker along with ice, then stir until the sugar cube dissolves. Pour the ice and remaining absinthe out of the Old Fashioned glass and strain in the rest of the ingredients. Serve straight up, garnished with a lemon peel.
When it comes to mixing up an Old Fashioned with rye, Old Overholt is the perfect choice. It has deep, spicy notes, a bit of citrus which nicely accompanies the sugar and bitters, and helps ease into the smooth finish that’s expected from a quality Old Fashioned.
- 4.5 ML Rye Whiskey
- 2 Dashes of Angostura Bitters
- 1 Sugar Cube
- 3 Dashes Plain Water
- An Orange Slice and Maraschino Cherry for Garnish
Muddle together the sugar cube, bitters and water, then top off the cocktail shaker with ice and the whiskey. Stir, then strain into a chilled Old Fashioned glass and garnish. Serve on the rocks.