Rye whiskey is enjoying a renaissance. For the first time in a century, the category is growing rapidly. Sales are up 530% since 2009, from 88,000 9-liter cases that year to over a half million cases in 2015.
Big-name brands like Bulleit and Russell’s Reserve are in high demand. A Canadian rye was recently named 2016 World Whisky of the Year by renowned whiskey writer Jim Murray. Craft distilleries nationwide are releasing new and creative takes on the style. And mixologists have embraced the spirit as the base of craft cocktails.
In light of this spike in popularity, we have looked into the “why” of rye.
Just My Type
There are two types of rye: American and Canadian. The difference can be substantial.
The American version must be distilled from at least 51% rye. The final proof cannot top 80. Aging occurs in charred, new oak barrels. For a brand to use the term “straight rye,” the product requires at least two years of aging.
Canadian rye follows less strict rules. The term has become a loose synonym for “Canadian whisky,” as the country’s brown spirits have historically contained high amounts of rye.
Legally, rye is not even mandatory in the mash bill of Canadian ryes. The law requires only that these spirits exhibit the typical aroma, taste and character of Canadian whisky.
Distilleries sometimes satisfy these requirements by blending in flavoring whiskies made from rye-heavy mashes. Thus, Canadian ryes are often noticeably smoother than American counterparts. Though plenty of spicy ryes are still produced north of the border.
Rise of Rye
Sales stats for this category look so impressive, in part, because not long ago the market was all-but nonexistent. As late as 2000, many rye brands barely maintained distribution.
How things have changed — thanks to the modern drinker. As the craft-spirit boom rocketed bourbon into the mainstream conscious, its spicier sibling came along for the ride.
This is not rye’s first time in the national spotlight, however. It had a prior heyday.
A century ago, distilleries up and down the eastern seaboard produced rye in great quantities. The spirit was especially common in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Then came along Prohibition. New laws forbade whiskey production. Many distilleries went out of business. The east-coast rye industry never recovered. Bourbon became the undisputed king of American whiskey.
And still is today. Although rye’s numbers have risen greatly, the category still trails bourbon by a wide margin.
But the secret is out. Connoisseurs have more competition now for quality bottles of rye. Discerning drinkers, especially mixologists and Millennials, have taken notice. Rye is a spicy, buttery alternative to bourbon.
Modern drinkers crave variety. They value quality over loyalty, and are willing to experiment across brands and styles.
This has greatly aided rye.
“People are drinking bourbon before they discover rye,” explains Norman Banchick, CEO of 375 Park Spirits, which makes Tap 375 Maple Rye Whisky, a Canadian brand. “Millennial drinkers like to discover new things. They probably have tasted 15 or so bourbons, and have settled on a few that they like. So what’s next for them to discover?”
“And that’s how the process starts,” he adds.
Similar to the new craft-beer drinker starting with smoother ales before venturing into bitter IPAs, the bourbon-to-rye progression is a natural step for the palate.
“The popularity of rye is due in no small part to the flavor profile being more intense than bourbon,” says Timo Marshall, Co-Founder of Spirit Works, a Sebastopol, California-based distillery that produces a straight rye whiskey. “They’re very different styles, bourbon and rye.”
Indeed, while rye is spicy, bourbons are smoother and sweeter, and can be fuller-bodied.
Rye has also benefitted from being “the new kid on the block,” says Marshall. “The new and shiny plaything is always popular. Rye is a little bit of an underdog. It also gets attention that way.”