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In the Rye of the Beholder

You’ve heard us say that gin is the dark horse spirit. In that same light – we believe rye whiskey is the rebel of all whiskeys. There’s a reason it’s known as that bastard whiskey. Its guidelines are just as strict as its counterpart bourbon, varying only slightly.

But, let’s start with the basics. To be considered American rye, the whiskey must use at least 51 percent rye, as opposed to corn. It must also be:

  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80 percent ABV
  • Put into the barrel at no higher than 125 proof, or 62.5 percent ABV
  • Bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, or 40 percent ABV

To be straight rye, the whiskey must be aged for at least two years. Age it less than four years, and the bottle is required to carry an age statement. If you happen upon a bottle labeled as straight rye, but it lacks an age statement, it must have been aged for at least four years.

Those are the basics. Now, let’s get into the good stuff.

As we said, rye whiskey is a rebel. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s adventure in a glass. But for some reason, it hasn’t always been wildly popular. This wasn’t always the case though. Before Prohibition, rye whiskey was the most popular spirit distilled in the United States. It was simple for farmers to distill and the rye was resilient enough to withstand the elements, making it easy to plant and grow.

Throughout the late 1700s, literally everyone and their brother was producing rye whiskey. Well, maybe not literally – but you get the picture. George Washington himself capitalized on the rye popularity, producing it on Mount Vernon and charging whiskey distillers to pay taxes on their products. This, in turn, sparked the great Whiskey Rebellion.

After the whiskey tax was repealed in 1802, let’s just say America got a little too excited. Whiskey reached its peak in popularity up until it was shut down with Prohibition exactly one hundred years later. And even after the period was over, rye whiskey, specifically, saw a direct disassociation with drinkers of the past. Americans were more inclined to move toward sleek, sophisticated spirits and curated cocktails than their old friend rye.

Luckily, over the years as we have evolved our taste buds have too. Most of us no longer crave something overly sweet. On the contrary, we’re leaning into spicy, savory, and sometimes bitter flavors. The Aperol Spritz, arguably so, is the most popular cocktail of the moment. That bitter taste is mirrored in the craft beer world, with heavy IPAs and hoppy ales. Similarly, rye fills that gap in the whiskey sector.

Rye whiskey is an outlier. It’s a whiskey that is distilled specifically for the discerned palate. And we are on board as ever that its resurgence continues on for the foreseeable future.