As uniquely American as NFL Football, bourbon has enjoyed a significant rise in popularity in the last decade. Folks just cannot seem to get enough – and producers cannot seem to produce enough. Lots of demand and in some cases, sparse supply. As I sat outside a local liquor store recently, swapping bottles with a fellow Bourboneur, this was exceedingly obvious as a gentleman wandered up to us at the back of the parking lot as he saw an EH Taylor tube and wanted to know if we got it inside and how he could get one if not. Interestingly, in a world where good bourbon is getting tougher to find, a rise in rye whiskey is just getting underfoot…again. If you're looking to add variety to your whiskey collection, here's what you need to know about bourbon versus rye:
As many of you may know, or not, Rye, like bourbon, is a whiskey. The name “whiskey” is an umbrella term that refers to several various distilled spirits of the brown water variety. Whereas by law bourbon’s mash bill is required to be composed of at minimum fifty-one percent corn, rye must be distilled from at least fifty-one percent rye.
Rye is a wheat-like grass in the family Gramineae that can grow almost anywhere, even in some of the harshest conditions. Given its ease in cultivation and therefore availability, it has enjoyed it’s own popularity over the years. Interestingly, the majority of rye whiskey here in the states is actually now made from Bavarian grain due to the superior qualities (e.g. spicier compared to earthier flavor profiles coming from American rye’s…not that that is always bad). When distilled, a rye whiskey yields a spicy, grainy much more edgy flavor profile compared to its kissing cousin bourbon, whose corn heavy base yields a sweeter and more full-bodied dram.
Prior to rye whiskey becoming popular, rum was a mainstay drink, which, the British levied taxes upon. Following the Revolution, all things British went out the window, and in this new world, rye whiskey was born. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s farmers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sold on average approximately half a barrel of rye whiskey for each person in the country (yes, that includes even children – though they weren’t drinking it). The average early Americans were however lushes by today’s standards, downing about two bottles each week!!! President George Washington even saw fit to get in on the action and at one point, was the largest distiller of rye whiskey in America.
As Prohibition hit, rye nearly disappeared from the equation all together as society by in large fell out of love with rye whiskey. Trends come and go, and the marketing machine ramped up and bourbon was in, with rye becoming a “blue collar” spirit.
The competition for shelf space between bourbon versus rye has grown in recent years with all types of rye whiskey coming to market in a category that continues to evolve. Revenue from the sale of rye whiskey went from a measly $15 million in 2009 to nearly $200 million by 2018. The shift in rye that started in earnest saw distillers in Kentucky turn their attention to production of select expressions of various “sipping ryes” a few which sit on my back bar shelf, notably Michter’s 10 Year and Thomas H. Handy from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. Angels Envy even put out a rye in 2011 that notably was finished in rum barrels, giving it a sweetness that to me is like a good port – best served as a dessert.
As the nation warms its heart (and palate) once again with rye whiskey, I expect several interesting evolutions will occur in the mixology space given the complexity of rye and where the spirit may go in the years ahead. With a focus on smaller more intimate settings post-pandemic, an evolution of the home bar or garage bar bartender culture and folks paying closer attention to quality ingredients in their cocktails we’ll likely add on another interesting chapter for rye, a spirit that has had it’s share of ups and downs.
We may be Bourboneurs, but there's a bit of space for the rye connoisseurs as well. As liquor trends come and go, be sure to follow us on Instagram and TikTok to stay in the know and learn more about what's hitting the shelves these days. Start your own glorious wall of bourbon (or rye!) with these sets of lighted bar shelves (4' Set & 6' Set).