Rye – Back from the Brink

There was a time not too long ago when rye whiskey almost disappeared, another victim of Prohibition. It didn’t, though, and thanks to the internet, rye has enjoyed something of a revival in America. So much so that there have even been shortages caused by its rapid return to semi-popularity. However, despite this new popularity, you can still get blank stares from cocktail waitresses on Main St bars and questions like, “Is that a kind of whiskey?”

Yes, Virginia, it is a kind of whiskey. Believe it or not, a whiskey made from rye, which is a close cereal relative of wheat. For American producers to label their bottles as rye whiskey, the mash bill must be at least 51% rye, among other things. Using the word ‘straight’ adds a requirement of at least 2 years of aging in new, charred oak barrels. Canadian producers are under no such restrictions, and currently very little rye is used in whisky making north of the border. The ever reliable wikipedia even claims that Canadian law allows the label ‘rye whisky’ on products that contain no rye at all! That said, there are a few 100% rye whiskys (Alberta Springs, for one) being made in Canada, and I’d love to try them. Banff is lovely this time of year…

Rye can also feature in the recipe for a bourbon whiskey. Bourbons are only required to use 51% corn, leaving plenty of room for other grains, especially one as distinctive as rye. It is commonly used and a number of bourbons show more or less of rye’s unique musty and spicy flavor. For instance, the Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon could be mistaken for a rye in a blind tasting and the Four Roses Single Barrel 100° is 35% rye.

rye Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Old Overholt and Rittenhouse are the major brands on the market. Other ryes are basically specialty items, with the possible exception of the Sazerac 6 year old – called the ‘Baby Saz’ to differentiate it from its 18 year old stablemate. Pikesville Rye is the only surviving Maryland rye, and has limited distribution. Moving up the price scale a little, you’ll find the Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye and Michters US1. In the ‘very expensive’ category, look for A.H. Hirsch, Van Winkle, Black Maple Hill and Sazerac.

I recently acquired the Thomas Handy Sazerac from the Buffalo Trace 2008 Antique Collection. Maybe I’ll make a Manhattan with some Carpano Antica and cherry vanilla bitters one of these days. For now, I am content to sip it with some water and a bit of ice as it is barrel strength, a tongue blistering 127.5 proof. It is truly a joy of a sipper, starting out with a vanilla, filling the mouth with a wonderful buttery texture, and finishing with notes of black pepper and cloves.

Mixing wise, rye is a great ‘bottom’ or ‘bass note’, that pairs well with sweeter or brighter things like citrus, Benedictine or St Germain, yet has enough punch not to get lost in the mix. One of the best ways to enjoy it is in an Imbibe!-style Fancy Rye Cocktail or a Sazerac.

SazeracSazerac (a là Imbibe!)

  • 2 ounce rye whiskey (Rittenhouse)
  • 1 scant teaspoon simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1 dash absinthe ( as a rinse)

Stir with fine cracked ice, strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a nice curly lemon twist.

Wow, that is fantastic! Ordering these out at bars usually results in a sickly sweet rye syrup, and when I usually make these freehand they have much more bitters than this. Carefully following Thomas Handy’s (by way of Wondrich) recipe is well worth it.

Another classic cocktail utilizing rye is the Manhattan. However, only having space for one more drink, I couldn’t neglect that wonderful Negroni variation known as the Boulevardier.



  • 1 ounce rye whiskey (Old Overholt)
  • 1 ounce Campari
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1-2 dash rhubarb bitters (optional)

Stir well over cracked ice for 20 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry or a twist of orange peel.

A fine, balanced cocktail with the Campari and rye characters tamed but still present to be savored. Another plus – the basic recipe is simple enough that you might be able to get a decent one out of your bartender.

A few links for those interested in further reading:

Here’s Mud in Your Rye

How to Make it at Home

All but Lost, Rye Is Revived as the Next Boutique Find

For some tastings of various ryes, check out Paul Clarke’s nine post series at The Rye Chronicles and LeNell’s Rye Class.

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