Don't sleep on rye whiskey. It's easy to get swept up in the bourbon and scotch mania and let rye go completely unnoticed. But you'd only be hurting yourself. It's produced in almost the exact same way as bourbon, but with one key difference: bourbon's mash must be 51% corn, while rye's must be 51%...rye. Instead of the sweet, smooth taste of bourbon, rye gives off big, spicy flavors that you won't soon forget.
When it comes to liquor, rye whiskey is complex and doesn't back down from a fight. It's the drink you order when you want to prove you know your stuff.
Rye whiskey was historically the preferred whiskey in the American northeast. In fact, Pittsburg was the rye whiskey epicenter from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. Fun fact: Allegheny County in 1808 was selling one half barrel of rye whiskey for each man, woman and child in the United States at that time. Now that's a lot of rye.
Rye grains are known for lending a fruity or spicy flavor to whiskey. Bourbon, which uses mostly corn, is much sweeter but lacks rye's full body. But bourbon became wildly popular in the South, causing bartenders to use it in cocktails that normally called for rye, such as a Whiskey Sour or an Old Fashioned. While the two are interchangeable, for the most part, rye whiskey is much drier in cocktails.
This whiskey earned its name by being composed of mostly rye. Canadian whiskey is often called rye. Canada used to produce whiskies with a lot of rye, but they have no regulations about doing so. By law, Canadian whiskies can call themselves Rye Whiskey no matter the makeup of the mash. Be sure to check your labels so you know you're getting a real rye whiskey. Preferably from an American distiller that abides by regulations.
Rye whiskey has a distinctive flavor profile that stands out because it picks up even more spice during the aging process, which occurs in charred, new oak barrels. The unique taste packs a kick on the palate with a lively, unmistakable spiciness. Expect notes of vanilla and caramel from the barrels along with other flavor varieties, depending on whether the rye is blended or aged.
Rye whiskey falls into historical camps: Pennsylvania-style and Maryland-style. Pennsylvania ryes tend to be spicier with big, bold flavors. Maryland ryes feature more corn, resulting in a sweeter, more rounded taste, but you still get those spicy flavors coming through. Oh, and rye whiskey burns going down. Not too much, but enough to keep you coming back for more.
Rye is plenty good neat or on the rocks. But you can't have a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned, Sazerac or Manhattan without rye. Try pairing it with ginger ale or club soda if you're new to the drink.
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