Imbued with enticing aromas and brilliantly flavored palates, straight rye whiskeys share a common heritage that is uniquely American. In fact, prior to Prohibition, it was our nation’s whiskey of choice. However, following World War II, sales of rye whiskey went into a protracted slump, a decline that reflected the steady rise in popularity of soft blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from American bars.
Fortunately that trend has reversed and the spicy, exuberant flavors of American ryes have once again attracted a worldwide following. It’s no surprise. Rye whiskeys have broad shoulders and a lot of personality, a character no doubt molded from our collective national self-image. Fueling its revival is the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the rise of the mixologist. As the earliest rendition of American whiskey, rye was almost exclusively used as the foundation of pre-Prohibition cocktails that called for whiskey.
“We’re in a time in which authenticity in cocktails is in high demand,” observes Angus Winchester, drinks expert and master mixologist. “Today bartenders scour vintage drink recipe guides searching for long-forgotten classics. Eventually that pursuit instills them with deference for rye whiskey. It was prominently featured in cocktails of the golden era; not just as a result of being in wide supply, but because the whiskey imbues cocktails with incomparably intense flavors.”
Adds Winchester, “There are legions of drink enthusiasts out there who like to sip cocktails popular in bygone eras. To accommodate those guests you’ll need an assortment of classic ryes on your backbar.”
Iconic American Ryes
Most of the country’s major suppliers and craft distillers are now marketing at least one label of rye whiskey, which by federal law must be made with no less than 51 percent rye, the balance typically being malted barley and corn. If your whiskey-loving clientele is looking for a singular taste experience, suggest they set their sights on American straight rye whiskey.
The following is a roster of the category’s standard bearers from which to choose.
Bulleit Rye — Launched in 2011, Bulleit Rye American Whiskey is a small batch, straight rye whiskey made from 95 percent premium rye with the balance being malted barley. The whiskey is a re-creation of August Bulleit’s original recipe. Bulleit Rye is a brilliant spirit imbued with a generous nose and a honey and baking spice finish.
George Dickel Rye — Any discussion of rye whiskey must include mention of George Dickel’s famed whiskey. Located in Tullahoma, Tennessee, the distillery produces its rye using the same mash bill—95% rye and 5% malted barley—that it did when it was first introduced in the 1870s. Likewise, the whiskey is still chilled just prior to being mellowed through sugar maple charcoal.
Jim Beam Rye — One of the brands credited with reviving the category, Jim Beam Rye debuted in 1940 and is the world’s best selling rye whiskey. Aged for six-years, the whiskey is full-bodied with a fresh, lively bouquet.
Michter’s Straight Ryes — The oldest licensed whiskey distillery is renowned for an extraordinary single barrel rye. Michter’s US1 Straight Rye is aged a minimum of 4 years in used bourbon barrels and bottled at 84.8 proof. Michter’s whiskeys are as old as our republic.
Old Overholt — One of the early brands of American straight rye whiskies, it’s now produced at the Jim Beam Distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. Old Overholt is made in small batches using a blend of 59% rye and aged 4 years. It’s an example of what was referred to as Monongahela Rye.
Rittenhouse Rye — Introduced in 1933, Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye is a full-bodied powerhouse with a generous bouquet and a luscious layered palate. The flavors of vanilla, toffee and spice slowly fade into a memorable finish. Among the elite in the category, Rittenhouse inexplicably sells for under $20 a bottle.
(rA —Introduced Jim Beam in 2008, the ultra-premium whiskey is bottled at 92 proof and comes with no age statement, although none is needed to appreciate this sleek, peppery rye.
Sazerac 18-year old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey — A charter member of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, the 2014 release well-deserves its critical acclaim. This huge whiskey has a compelling bouquet, a muscular, well-textured body and a palate of spice, vanilla and caramel. The long lasting finish is warm and relaxed.
Sazerac Rye — Ranked among the best buys in the category, Sazerac Rye is an enticing whiskey aged for six-years and bottled at an accessible 90-proof.
Templeton Straight Rye — Made in Iowa from a recipe dating to before Prohibition, Templeton is a single barrel whiskey aged for no less than 5 years. The brand is reputed to have been Al Capone’s whiskey of choice.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac — Also a featured member of Sazerac’s Antique Collection, the limited release is an uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. The 2014 release is bottled at a lip-tingling 127.5-proof.
Van Winkle’s Reserve — One of the venerable names in whiskey, Van Winkle’s produced two highly acclaimed marques. Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye is robust, 12-year old made from a family recipe dating back to 1872. Bottled at 90 proof, the whiskey has a lively, spicy palate and an equally spicy finish. Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye is a 95.6 proof classic aged for 13-years.
Wild Turkey Straight Rye — First released in the 1940’s, Wild Turkey Rye is distilled in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It’s aged in charred oak casks and bottled at the distillery’s trademark 101-proof. The whiskey is aromatic and masterfully balanced.
Hot New Ryes
Whiskey enthusiasts from around the globe are beating a path to our shores. The following hot new rye whiskeys offer insight into the reason why. Cheers!
Angel’s Envy — This gem of a whiskey was the brainchild of the late Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson, formerly of Woodford Reserve. As it turned out, Henderson’s last whiskey opus was Angel’s Envy™ Finished Rye Whiskey. Made from a mash bill of 95% rye and 5% malted barley, it is aged for 6 years in charred, American white oak barrels. It is then finished for up to 18 months in small-batch cognac barrels, which were used previously to age Plantation XO Rum.
Hillrock Estate Distillery Solera Aged Bourbon — Located in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hillrock Estate Distillery is one of the few “field-to-glass” whiskey producers in the world, and is the first U.S. distillery since before Prohibition to floor malt and handcraft whiskey on site from estate-grown grain. Master Distiller David Pickerell has created a world-class range of artisanal Hillrock whiskeys, including the first Solera aged bourbon, a single malt and a double cask rye whiskey.
Hudson Manhattan Rye — Tuthilltown’s small batch whiskey is handcrafted at their farm distillery in Gardiner, New York. It is distilled in a traditional copper pot still from whole grain rye and pure spring water. The whiskey is then matured in new charred oak barrels for 4 years and bottled unfiltered.
Masterson’s — This rye whiskey is handcrafted at the Alberta Distillers Limited Distillery in Calgary, Canada entirely from rye grain grown in the Pacific Northwest and water sourced from the Canadian Rockies. After fermentation, the mash is distilled in a small, copper pot still and then placed in white oak barrels. Masterson’s is matured for not less than 10 years before being bottled at 90 proof.
Redemption Rye — This classically structured whiskey is distilled in Indiana from a mash that contains 95% premium rye and 5% barley malt. It is aged for over two years in new charred oak barrels, then lightly filtered before being bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky at 92 proof. You’ll also want to spend some time with Redemption Barrel Proof Straight Rye Whiskey. Bottled at a lip-tingling 121.8 proof, it’s loaded with spicy rye notes.
Old Tahoe Rye — The Old Tahoe Distillery in Fallon, Nevada is the vision of Mark Taverniti, an accomplished wine maker and the founder and CEO of Spanish Peaks Brewing Company. The whiskey is crafted in small batches entirely from a mash bill comprised entirely of premium rye grown and is allowed to mature for a minimum of 3 years.
WhistlePig Straight Rye — Located in Shoreham, Vermont, WhistlePig is the country’s first single estate distillery, which means that production of the whiskey takes place entirely on the estate. It’s earned its world-class reputation distilling exclusively “single malt” rye whiskey under the care and expertise of Master Distiller Dave Pickerell. WhistlePig 100% Straight Rye, 100 proof, is aged for 10 years—first in new American oak and then finished in ex-bourbon barrels.