Rye's Triumphant Return

Image: George Washington Distillery / DISCUS

Arguably America's original grain spirit, rye is riding an international wave of resurgence.

 

No other spirit trend tells the story of the American cocktail and spirit resurgence better than rye. Relegated to the dustiest place in the back bar (if carried at all), down to a handful of Kentucky producers bothering to maintain the tradition, favored only by older men and a few cocktail geeks, rye was surely on the road to extinction.

But something happened – something big – and as the result of cheerleading from advocates of classic American drinking, rye has exploded. While the number of brands and their relative scarcity long told the tale of rye in the United States, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) has just recently released data showing how much the American whiskey category has grown.

Since 2009, rye whiskey volumes have grown 778%, from 88,000 cases to nearly 775,000 in 2016. In value terms, that translates into a 900% jump in revenue from slightly more than $15 million in supplier revenues in 2009 to nearly $160 million in 2016.

Additionally, the Council projects rye whiskey growth to continue in the double digits through 2017, fueled by large suppliers such as Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, as well as many small producers that have sprung up since the reconstruction of George Washington’s Distillery in Virginia, which the spirits industry lobbying association has been overseeing.

Over 400,000 people have visited the Mount Vernon distillery since it was re-opened and, since 2008 (when Virginia legalized spirits sales at the distillery), approximately $1.5 million in revenue has been generated from the sale of more than 23,600 bottles of whiskey and brandy and 8,000 whiskey gift sets.

“American rye whiskey is retaking its rightful place among the world’s great distilled spirits, a place that was lost to Prohibition,” said DISCUS president and CEO Kraig R. Naasz. “The growth of rye whiskey has also benefitted American farmers, and underscores what George Washington knew, that producing distilled spirits is the essence of value-added agriculture.”

Naasz spoke as part of the 10th Anniversary American Rye Whiskey distilling project​, a two-day event sponsored by DISCUS and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The event featured top American whiskey distillers, including Fred Noe​ of Jim Beam​,​ Elizabeth McCall of Woodford Reserve​, Wes and Kyle Henderson of Angel's Envy​, Ted Huber of ​Indiana's Starlight Distillery, Dave Pickerell of Hillrock and WhistlePig​. ​

Other recent events reinforce the attraction that rye holds. Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye Whiskey marks the first time that the brand’s portfolio has been extended with a permanent rye expression. Dark Rye builds on the limited-edition Basil Hayden’s Rye Whiskey, which took the title “Rye of the Year” at the this year’s New York International Spirits Competition.

And while rye was long associated with Maryland, Pennsylvania and Indiana, as the grain gains prominence rye whiskey is gaining traction among craft distillers. In late October, New York City hosted its first Rye Week, with activities focused on New York Distilling Company’s Brooklyn operation. NYDC produces two ryes and hosted a dozen local rye producers for a walk-around tasting event. In addition, Rye Week was the official launch of Empire Rye, a consortium of whiskey makers who all debuted a rye expression under the Empire Rye label. The founders of Empire Rye are New York State distilleries Black Button Distillery, Coppersea Distilling, Finger Lakes Distilling, Kings County Distillery, New York Distilling Company, and Tuthilltown Distilling, all shown at an introduction party.