Rye whiskey is one of America’s oldest spirits, but it’s only recently started to receive the attention it deserves. The hearty grain makes a decidedly less sweet spirit than primarily corn-based bourbon, offering a spicy, grain forward flavor that is clearly capturing people’s palates—according to the Distilled Spirits Council, rye whiskey sales are up 778 percent since 2009.
Brian McKenzie, the president of Finger Lakes Distilling, attributes the recent uptick to a general quest for flavor. “People are looking at bigger flavors, whether it comes to coffee, beer, or other beverages like whiskey,” he says. “Rye has this bold and unique flavor.” Daric Schlesselman, the distiller at Van Brunt Stillhouse, sees the evolving cocktail culture as one of the reasons for the steady growth. “Since so many classic pre-Prohibition cocktails were originally made with rye, the drive to explore those cocktails as they were originally intended has sparked a renewal of the category.”
Historically, Pennsylvania and Maryland were the primary growers of the grain and producers of the spirit, but rye lost a lot of momentum during Prohibition, and over the last few decades Kentucky and Indiana have become the main producers. “One industry estimate suggests that 70 percent of the rye sold in America comes from a single distillery, MGP [in Indiana], which makes rye for other brands like Bulleit, Redemption, George Dickel and Templeton,” says Colin Spoelman, the co-founder of Kings County Distillery. But as the explosion of local microdistilleries continues to expand, producers are reaching back into the histories of their lands and finding that rye is not only traditional, but also uniquely delicious when treated as a craft product from grain to bottle.
The biggest news for the rye category is the recent addition of a new designation: Empire Rye. Empire Rye, officially launched with new releases in October 2017, is a classification of rye from New York State. To be considered an Empire Rye, a whiskey must be made with a mash bill of at least 75-percent New York-grown rye. It must go into the barrel at a maximum of 110 proof. It must be distilled in the same distillery that bottles it. The production from harvest to distillation must happen within the same season. And it must spend at least two years aging in barrel. The regulations were carefully designed to provide strict quality control while allowing enough room for distilleries to create unique and individual expressions.
This movement of Empire Rye, and other companies outside of New York who are taking a craft approach, is about bringing back the diversity of rye whiskey. While the commercialization of the style certainly helped propel it to its modern form, rye is now back in the hands of small, independent distillers. Here, some of the first ever Empire Rye releases to try, plus a few other new rye releases that embody the growing and evolving category.
Van Brunt Stillhouse Empire Rye ($45)
Made primarily from New York-grown danko rye, this rye shows a lot of depth and complexity. The flavors are spice forward with plenty of charred wood flavor on the finish, leaving a bold and powerful impression after each sip.
Tuthilltown Spirits Hudson Manhattan Rye ($60)
A mash bill of 90-percent New York rye creates an intense grain forward flavor. This new release was bottled from one single barrel. Two years of aging allowed for layers of sweet woodiness to develop, which give this spicy rye a hint of bourbon-like smoothness.
Finger Lakes Distilling Empire Rye ($N/A)
The first iteration of Finger Lakes’ single barrel program, this release comes straight from a heavy charred 53 gallon cask. It’s spicy and woodsy, with notes of tobacco and smoke.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye ($50)
This new rye release has become an instant favorite. The mashbill features 70-percent rye, creating a spirit that captures the essence of the grain, complemented by deeply spicy notes, both savory and sweet.
Finger Lakes Distilling Empire Rye ($45)
This overproof rye spends four years aging to create a richly layered flavor profile. The complexity is long lived, and includes notes of cinnamon, spiced cherries and toasted cereal grains. The long finish leaves the mouth coated with baking spice and hints of tropical fruit.
Barrel Rye Batch 001 ($85)
Blended from different batches, this cask strength rye is actually on the milder side of the flavor spectrum. Notes of butterscotch and toffee mingle with malty notes that keep the flavors grounded in grains.