The Rise of Rye: Bourbon’s Spicier Sibling is Having a Moment

All Eyes on Rye

If rye indeed gains notice as an underdog, it explains why many craft distilleries produce the spirit.

“For us smaller guys, it can be harder to compete in the bourbon market,” says JP Jerome, owner and operator of Detroit City Distillery. “But the rye market is more balanced.”

Detroit City Distillery makes spirits from local Michigan ingredients, and includes a tasting room with a full menu of food and beverage. It opened in 2014 and launched two bourbons. Last year, the company released its Homegrown Rye.

“Our bar staff loves rye these days, as do the staff at a lot of local hot cocktail bars,” Jerome says.

Indeed, many pre-prohibition cocktails called for rye as an ingredient. It’s no coincidence that the modern rise of rye has coincided with the mixology movement. Today’s bartenders, looking back in time for inspiration, have reinvigorated the use of rye in craft cocktails.

Many of these classic recipes, like the Old Fashioned, had in modern times replaced rye with bourbon. Thanks to mixologists, those days now seem like a thing of the past.

Rye’s profile as an alternative to the more-mainstream bourbon can also help distilleries define themselves. Spirit Works is a grain-to-glass distillery that thus far has released only rye and wheat whiskeys.


“The reason we didn’t launch a bourbon yet is because we wanted to produce something that wasn’t clouded by what’s popular out there,” explains Marshall.

He believes that many people like rye because of its history.

“Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and more interested in the history of a product, and how it relates to them,” Marshall says. “And with the history of whiskey in America, Rye has always played a big part in the background.”

As it has in Canada, where rye today finds itself in similar position: growing, but still in the shadow of bourbon.

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Detroit City Distillery produces Homegrown Rye.

Ease of Access

Before launching his Tap 375 Maple Rye Whisky in 2012, Norman Banchick had wanted to make Canadian bourbon. But could not get his hands on the necessary juice. “Bourbon is a hot commodity,” he says. “And I wanted something I could get more consistently.”

Thus another rye entered the market. It’s a similar story for other distilleries. Rye is easier to purchase than the corn needed for bourbon.

“Because we’re not buying corn as a commodity, it can be difficult for us to acquire corn locally,” says Jerome of Detroit City Distillery. “Most of that corn is spoken for years in advance. You really have to buy a ton of it.”

Whereas Detroit City Distillery can buy rye from smaller Michigan farms. Many of these farms grow the grain in winter as a cover crop, planted primarily for the sake of soil upkeep.

Barrels of Flavor

Once Banchick could acquire rye with consistency, the next question was how to differentiate the product. With so many ryes now coming onto market, distilleries are experimenting with different mash bills, barrels and flavorings.

Banchick first tried for a sherry-cask finish. For production reasons, that did not work. The next idea was for 375 Park Spirits to make a maple rye whisky. They blended together three ryes aged three, five, and seven years (hence the name) with Grade A light maple syrup from Quebec (and some caramel coloring).

The result was a smooth, sweet maple rye, eminently mixable, and enjoyable in different ways.

“When you watch the younger people drink bourbon for the first time, they grimace a little bit, and then say, ‘Boy that’s good’, because that’s what they’re taught,” Banchick explains. “Then I watch them drink a rye, and it’s more of an instant gratification.”

Whereas American rye is more of an acquired taste, and harder to flavor because of its spice. So says Wesley Henderson, Chief Innovation Officer for Louisville Distilling Company, LLC.

The company produces Angel’s Envy. The brand entered market in 2011 with a bourbon that had secondary aging in port barrels. When the company released a rye two years later, it was no surprise that the spirit spent time in something interesting.

Angel’s Envy finishes its 6-year-old rye with 18 months in used Caribbean rum casks. These barrels began their life holding Ferrand cognac before their second go-round with Ferrand Plantation XO rum.

“With the spiciness of rye, we wanted to play off of the sweetness and molasses of rum,” says Wesley Henderson, Chief Innovation Officer Louisville Distilling Company, LLC.

The result was a sweet and spicy whiskey, complex but balanced. Angel’s Envy was among the first distilleries to use rum casks for rye. It’s no easy feat.

“Rye is much trickier to finish than other whiskey,” Henderson says. “Because of the taste profiles, you have fewer options on the finishing side. The finishing barrel has to be bold enough to hold up. So you have to be more aggressive than with bourbon or a single-malt.”




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