The folks from DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) were in town recently to promote American whiskeys. They spoke about Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeys, which are, thanks to Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam, fairly popular in India, and they also spoke about the resurgence of rye whisky in America. Over the last five to six years, rye whisky sales have jumped from about 80,000 cases to over 550,000 cases, and the renaissance is being powered by both big brands as well as boutique distillers across the United States.
Rye and America go back a long way, and it was, possibly, among the many drinks the First Settlers slaked their thirst with. George Washington, the founding father of the United States, distilled his own rye whiskey, in Mount Vernon, Virginia, and rye, which formed the base for iconic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Sazerac, was a big saloon favourite until Prohibition knocked it off the radar.
The renewed interest in rye whiskey has a lot to do with bartenders and barflies rediscovering its spicy mixability, and, with well-aged ryes, its surprisingly smooth character that lends itself to sipping. Here’s a lowdown on one of America’s great spirits.
What does rye whiskey taste like?
Rye is an American whisky, related to Bourbon. So, think of it as a spicy Bourbon and you’ll get the drift.
What’s the difference between Bourbon and rye whiskeys?
Bourbon is a whiskey made up of at least 51 percent corn grain, while you know what makes a rye whiskey a rye whiskey. And, both whiskies are aged in unused American Great Oak barrels.
What else can rye whiskey contain?
Rye whiskey usually contain corn and malted barley. Regulations governing the production of rye whiskey in the United States state that the whisky is distilled to no more than 80 percent abv, and the whiskey has to be aged in charred, new oak barrels. The whiskey must be put into such barrels at not more than 62.5% abv.
Watch: How did George Washington make whiskey?
And, here’s the Punch Brothers performing, ahem, ‘Rye Whiskey’
And, there’s also a Punjabi Club rye from the Wisconsin-based Minhas Distillery. Just saying.
What’s the deal with rye and ageing?
Every whiskey in the United States has to be aged for a minimum of two years, and rye whiskeys, too, are no exception. However, an age statement is usually put on whiskeys that have been aged for four years or more.
Can I drink rye whiskey neat?
Like with every kind of spirit, there are okay rye whiskeys, good rye whiskeys, and fantastic specimens that are made for sipping, especially the ones that have been aged well. Keep in mind that, thanks to hot summers and cold winters, whiskeys mature way faster in the American Midwest than in, say, Scotland. So, a six to seven year-old rye whisky, says Mumbai-based bar professional and author Shatbhi Basu, is as good as a 20 YO Scotch dram.
Rye also works well with cocktails, right?
All American whiskeys work well in cocktails, and the same hold for rye, says Basu. “They have a bold, edgy profile that really lifts a drink up. They are aged in new barrels that are toasted and charred, and they have this dark caramel thing about them. As long as you maintain the integrity of the whiskey, rye-based cocktails taste brilliant.”
What brands should I be looking for?
Bulleit Rye, Knob Creek Rye, Beam Rye and George Washington Rye, among the big brands, and Dad’s Hat, Whistlepig and Templeton Rye from the boutique distillers.