What is Rye Whiskey?

Rye is known for imparting what many call a spicy or fruity flavor to the whiskey

American rye whiskey

In the United States, “rye whiskey” is, by law, made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye. (The other ingredients of the mash are usually corn and malted barley.) It is distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof, and aged in charred, new oak barrels. The whiskey must be put into such barrels at not more than 125 (U.S.) proof. Rye whiskey that has been so aged for at least 2 years may be further designated as “straight”, as in “straight rye whiskey”.

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Rye whiskey was the prevalent whiskey of the northeastern states, especially Pennsylvania and Maryland, but largely disappeared after Prohibition. A few brands, such as Old Overholt, survived it. Today Heaven Hill, Copper Fox, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey (among others) also produce rye whiskeys, as does a distillery at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, which sells a version of the rye Washington made. Rye is currently undergoing a small but growing revival in the United States.

Canadian rye whisky

Canadian whisky is often referred to as “rye whisky”, since historically much of the content was from rye. With no requirement for rye to be used to make whiskies with the legally-identical labels “Canadian Whisky”, “Canadian Rye Whisky” or “Rye Whisky” in Canada, provided they “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky”, in some cases the corn-to-rye ratio may be as high as 9:1. Most contemporary Canadian whiskies contain only a fraction of rye, with the exception of Alberta Premium which is one of the very few whiskies made from 100% rye mash.

In contrast with the US “straight rye whiskey” counterpart, a minimum of 3 years of small (700l/~185USG or less) wooden barrel aging is required for the “Canadian Whisky”, “Canadian Rye Whisky” and “Rye Whisky” labels, although they need not be new oak, nor charred.

Differences between rye and bourbon

Rye is known for imparting what many call a spicy or fruity flavor to the whiskey. Bourbon, distilled from at least 51% corn, is noticeably sweeter and tends to be fuller bodied than rye. As bourbon gained popularity beyond the southern United States, bartenders increasingly substituted it for rye in cocktails like Whiskey Sours, Manhattans, and Old Fashioneds, which were initially made only with rye. All other things being equal, the character of the cocktail will be drier with rye.

American distillers

Approximately twenty US distilleries produce about forty different ryes. Among them is a single malt produced by the Anchor Brewery of San Francisco, known as Old Potrero Single Malt Whiskey, one of the few single malt whiskeys made in the United States.

Canadian distillers

Approximately a dozen Canadian distillers make rye whisky today. Only a few produce a whisky with majority rye content, most famously Alberta Distillers’ Alberta Premium and Alberta Springs, and Wiser’s Old Rye Whisky, long distilled on the shores of Lake Ontario. Popular international brands of Canadian whisky are Canadian Club and Crown Royal.

Specialties

“Rock and Rye” is the name of two distinct beverages: a citrus fruit flavored whiskey-based liqueur made from American rye bottled with a bit of rock candy (crystallized sugar); and a toddy made with rye whiskey, bitters, and rock candy.

Rye bottlings

American rye whiskey

Anchor Distilling Company

Old Potrero

Old Potrero 18th Century (100% rye mash, oak barrels are toasted rather than charred as for modern whiskey)

Old Potrero Single Malt Hotaling’s Whiskey

Austin Nichols (Pernod Ricard)

Wild Turkey Rye Whiskey

Russell’s Reserve Rye

Black Maple Hill

18 Year Single Barrel Rye

23 Year Single Barrel Rye

Buffalo Trace

Sazerac 6 Year

Sazerac 18 Year

Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye

Classic Cask

Classic Cask Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey 21 Year

Copper Fox

Copper Fox Rye Whisky

Heaven Hill

Rittenhouse Rye 80 proof

Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof Bottled In Bond

Pikesville

Vintage 23 Year

Vintage 21 Year

Finger Lakes Distilling

McKenzie Rye Whiskey

Frank E. Wight’s Distilling Co. (Loreley, MD)

Wight’s Sherbrook Maryland Straight Rye

Wight’s Reserve

High West Distillery

Rendezvous Rye Whiskey (blend of 6-year-old 95% rye and 16-year-old 80% rye)

Hirsch Selection

Vintage 22 Year

Jim Beam

Jim Beam Rye (Yellow Label)

Old Overholt

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd

Red Hook Rye 23 Year (not to be confused with the rye beer made by Redhook Ale Brewery )

Michters American Whiskey Co.

Michters

Michters 10 Year

Old Rip Van Winkle (now distilled by Buffalo Trace)

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year

Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye 12 Year (discontinued)

Templeton Rye

Tuthilltown Spirits

Hudson Manhattan Rye

Government Warning Rye

Very Olde St. Nick

Very Olde St. Nick 12 Year Rye

Very Olde St. Nick 15 Year Rye

Very Olde St. Nick 17 Year Rye

Very Olde St. Nick 18 Year Rye

Very Olde St. Nick Winter Rye

Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye

Wight’s Rye Distillery (Baltimore County, MD)

Canadian rye whisky

Alberta Premium (100% rye, 5 years old)

Alberta Springs (100% rye, 10 years old)

Alberta Premium Limited Edition (100% rye, 25 years old)

Canadian 83

Canadian Club

Canadian Five Star

Crown Royal

Forty Creek

Gibson’s Finest

Lot 40 Pot Still Single Canadian (NAS)

Seagrams VO

Walker’s Special

Wiser’s Old Whisky

References

^ “Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits,” Title 27 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 5.22.

^ “Rye’s Revival,” Wine Spectator magazine, July 31, 2008

^ “Canadian Food and Drug Regulations (C.R.C., c. 870) – Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky (B.02.020.)”

^ “Rye: Situation and Outlook,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Bi-Weekly Bulletin, 2006-06-02 | Volume 19 Number 8 | ISSN 1494-1805 | AAFC No. 2081/E

^ See, e.g. Wondrich, David, Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar, Perigee Books, 2007. (ISBN 978-0399532870) At page 241 Wondrich states, in giving the recipe for a Manhattan, that “[a]ll things being equal, a 100-proof rye will make the best Manhattan…”

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