Guide to rye whiskey
Everything you need to know about rye whiskey including how it's made, its flavor profile, the history of the liquor, and which brands to drink.
December 03, 2021
It's been an interesting journey for rye whiskey in America, but bourbon's spicy cousin is currently enjoying an uptick in popularity. If you have ever been curious about what makes this American whiskey so special, our introductory article should have you sipping in no time.
What is rye whiskey?
Whiskey is a liquor that can be distilled from a variety of grains and is typically aged in oak barrels. A rye whiskey consists of at least 51% rye and can be distilled no higher than 160 proof, and barrel aged no higher than 125 proof.
History of rye
The history of rye whiskey begins in rural Pennsylvania where Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in the late 1700s. Having trouble growing barley, farmers turned to rye grains and before long it was the most popular whiskey in America.
In the 1960s and 1970s, all types of whiskey saw a dramatic decrease in popularity as that generation embraced beer, wine, and other spirits. At one point, the situation was so dire that American rye whiskey nearly disappeared. It took a resurgence of bourbon in the 90's to rekindle America's love of rye and today you will find a number of commercial and artisanal distilleries around the country.
How is rye whiskey made?
For a distillery to bestow the coveted title of "rye whiskey" to a product, there are a few legal regulations. First, the mash (a mixture of grain, water, and yeast that is initially fermented to produce alcohol) has to be at least 51% actual rye grain. The rest of the mixture is typically made up of malted barley and corn.
Next, the liquor is distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV) at which point it is aged in charred oak barrels. If aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels, it earns the title of ‘straight rye whiskey’. On the upper end of the craft distilling process are single barrel rye whiskies. These rye whiskeys come from an individual aging barrel and the entire production run is from that single cask. Many craft distilleries choose to make rye mash profiles much higher than the required 51% and use varied flavors of barley and other unique grains to produce singularly unique batches.
Brands for beginners
If you are just starting out on your rye whiskey journey, the options can be a bit overwhelming. A classic to try is Wild Turkey 101 Rye, known for its warm, smoky flavor and a rich aroma of caramel with honey and vanilla. The multiple award winning Sazerac Rye Whiskey embodies the spirit of New Orleans with this libation that tastes like candied spices and citrus.