Monday, June 11, 2018

The Second Coming of Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskies are back in fashion.

There is a resurgence happening. A long forgotten and much maligned spirit is making a comeback, and in a big way. That spirit is American rye whiskey.

Long seen as the spicy and brash brother of bourbon, rye whiskey had fallen out of favour with consumers and bartenders in a big way. The spirit never properly recovered from the Prohibition period, which was from 1920 to 1933 in America, and the effect was almost terminal. It was relegated to being produced by just a few distillers for a decreasing number of drinkers.

Post-Prohibition distillers began using cheaper and higher yielding grains, such corn and barley, more frequently and that has produced the styles of American whiskey that we are accustomed to today. The growth of bourbon almost put rye whiskey in to oblivion. But it was not always that way.

The heyday for rye whiskey was in the 1800s and early 1900s, and it formed the base for many classic cocktails that were developed during that time. These include iconic drinks such as the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour.

Classic cocktails such as the whisky sour are helping to promote rye.

The northeastern states, particularly Maryland and Pennsylvania, were the traditional powerhouses for rye production during this time. Rye was easy to grow, resistant to disease and plentiful in supply. The dry, spicy and robust flavours of the resulting spirit were extremely popular and rye whiskey was thriving.

Then Prohibition hit.

Only now is there a true growing revival of rye whiskey. This began a couple of years ago with a spread across the USA and then slowly to the world, driven by a new breed of spirits drinker and the re-birth of classic bartending. Sales are increasing massively each year.

As a result, more distilleries and products are entering the market. Rye whiskey is being produced all over America as its popularity booms. It has also seen American whiskey’s big players, such as Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam, enter the game alongside smaller craft brands to try and claim a slice of the pie.

While many small brands are not actually distilling their own rye spirit – they buy it from the large MGP distillery in Indiana and then bottle and re-brand it themselves – some are.

One such place is the Balcones distillery in Waco, Texas. The craft distillery, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and saw the introduction of rye whiskey into its core range for the first time, began distilling rye spirit in 2015.

Unusually, Balcones use 100% rye to produce their whiskey (they actually spell it without the ‘e’). The legal minimum is 51% with the rest made up from other grains, predominantly barley or corn. It must then be matured in new oak barrels and must be bottled at a minimum strength of 80 Proof (40% ABV). While there is no minimum age, it must be matured for at least two years to be called Straight Rye.

“We started making our rye whisky as we were drinking lots of it at the time,” Jared Himstedt, the Head Distiller at Balcones, tells me. “We knew from the beginning that rye would make a comeback at some point. We are now making more than we ever have and more than we can physically bottle, as we think the popularity of rye will continue grow and grow.”

Jared Himstedt sampling some new rye spirit.

This is backed up by the fact that Balcones have strategically switched their production schedule to reflect the growing popularity of rye. They have just finished a solid three-month run where they have distilled nothing else but rye whiskey. That is just shy of 100,000 litres. It is a far cry from the twelve barrels that they produced back in 2015.

Balcones are not alone either as every distiller ups production and new products appear in the marketplace each month. Bartenders are getting creative with rye whiskey and consumers are buying more bottles. The Second Coming of Rye Whisky is here and long may it continue.

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