The rye whiskeys distillers today is all over the map in terms of style and flavor. Some ryes are big and spicy, while others are rounder and softer. But it is the rye, of course, that provides the backbone to the flavoring.
Rye whiskey gets its unique spicy and flavorful characteristic from the complexity of the grain. Rye whiskeys are typically dry, peppery, and grainy, with complex flavors bursting with fruit, walnuts, and spice.
Do you remember your last bite of rye bread? It certainly had a lot more depth and complexity then plain white bread.
Rye appeals to drinkers who want that extra bite of sweet and peppery spice in their drink, and less sweetness. The higher the rye content, the spicier the whiskey.
The distinctive flavor of rye has many loyalists and it remains a staple in distillation, as the grain can withstand the cold weather better than others.
A Brief History of Rye Grain
The first evidence of rye cultivation comes to the world from Asia Minor, from around 1600 BC in what is now known as Turkey. In the Americas, the Native tribes taught European colonists how to grow indigenous grains for food, including rye, wheat and corn.
European settlers adopted rye as a staple food crop because it was hardier and grew well in acidic soil. Its sturdiness also made rye a go-to cover crop for tobacco plantations and where it became a staple mid-Atlantic food crop in the Breadbasket Colonies, including Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The birth of rye whiskey can be traced back to the states of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, where whiskey was first distilled from rye grain.
Renowned political figures, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, even Abraham Lincoln owned liquor licenses, with George Washington operating the largest rye whiskey distillery in early America from his Virginia estate.
In 1797, at the urging of his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, who had experience distilling grain in Scotland and Virginia, George Washington began commercial distilling whiskey.
The mash bill for George Washington’s whiskey recipe, was discovered by researchers examining historic distillery ledgers for 1798 and 1799. His whiskey consisted of 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley and records also indicate that George Washington’s whiskey was distilled at least twice before being sent to market.
During Washington’s time, whiskey was not aged in barrels but was sold unaged in a clear, colorless form.
Regional styles characterized much of the rye whiskey in early America.
Two different styles of rye whiskey developed during the colonial era were the Pennsylvania or Monongahela-style, and the Maryland-style rye. Regional styles were a matter of necessity as the transportation of large amounts of grain was not practical in Colonial times.
Distillers made whiskey exclusively from the grains grown on their farm or from grains grown nearby. These styles held on for a while even after Prohibition, but with whiskey production eventually consolidating in Kentucky, where corn grew in abundance, these regional styles of rye whiskey eventually died out.
Today, rye whiskey refers to only two major whiskey classifications, namely the American and the Canadian whiskies, in which rye is the base grain.
Rye is often added into the mix to help give whiskey depth, spice, and character. Choosing between rye whiskeys can be quite the challenge. The first thing that you should know is that the big difference between the two are found in the mash bill.
The Mash Bill
The mash bill is the formula of grains that are used in the production and are distilled to turn the liquid into a liquor. To be labeled a rye whiskey, the mashbill must be made of at least 51% rye; aged in new charred-oak barrels; and distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% alcohol by volume (ABV). However, most rye is distilled out at a lower proof.
The remaining 49% will often include other grains like corn, wheat, malted rye and malted barley in any combination. Some distillers, experiment with rice (including Japanese whisky), oats, and other grains. The rye whiskey mash bills from large distillers are typically about 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley.
To be labeled “Straight Rye,” the whiskey must be aged at least two years. If it is aged less than four years, the bottle must carry an age statement. Straight rye can contain no added colorings, flavorings, or additional spirits.