A Whole New World of Rye
February 2, 2023 –––––– David Fleming
To understand rye whiskey’s remarkable revival, one first needs to understand the modern renaissance of the cocktail—because both have followed the same curve. As America moved through the latter half of the 20th century, rye had become about as unfashionable as the top hat and cane. In the mists of childhood Christmases past, I can recall rye as a drink favored by my great-aunt Mary, who always requested it—rye being her shorthand for a Manhattan. The rye in the home liquor cabinet was Old Overholt, the workhorse of rye’s wilderness years. My dear old auntie certainly knew how to appreciate rye, but she was part of an aging, dwindling generation of devotees.
It was a bleak time for rye whiskey, and years would pass before its revival would show even a flicker of life. The first spark came in 1987, when bartender Dale DeGroff—nobody would have called him a mixologist back then—helped relaunch the Promenade Bar at the Rainbow Room, high atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. A spectacular art-deco gem, the Rainbow Room first opened in 1934 and became a temple of high society. Noël Coward sang and Fred Astaire danced there, and dinners lasted into the wee hours. But over the decades its luster faded, and by the dawn of the 1980s it had become as passé as the Manhattan.
The architect of the Rainbow Room’s multimillion-dollar come-back was legendary restaurateur Joseph Baum, creator of New York’s Four Seasons restaurant, among many other achievements. His first order of business was to build a classic cocktail menu to match the room’s décor. It was a bold choice, taken in a white wine era when the cocktail was quite literally on the verge of extinction. For their research, Baum and DeGroff needed to reach far back in time—to cocktail books like “How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion,” written in 1862 by famed 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, and the 1951 book “Bottoms Up” by Ted Saucier, a former Waldorf Astoria public relations man.
Known as the Cecil B. DeMille of restaurateurs, Baum was famous for his theatrical flair. Every detail of the Rainbow Room’s retro revival was meticulously managed. Greeters wore braided, brass-buttoned bellhop uniforms with pillbox hats, and the captains dressed in silk tails. But a central attraction was the cocktail list—the Manhattan, Jack Rose, Daiquiri, Whiskey Sour—all prepared in exquisite detail. People flocked to discover the drinks of yesteryear, and the place was showered with media attention. No one had pulled together a classic cocktail effort quite so ambitious.
This great adventure lasted over a decade, finally ending in 1998 when new ownership converted the Rainbow Room into a private event space. But this chapter in its history had inspired a new generation of cocktail enthusiasts, some of whom would go on to launch artisanal cocktail bars of their own. Thus, Baum and DeGroff’s influence on America’s drinking culture reverberates today.
Once the cocktail genie was out of the bottle, the biggest beneficiary arguably was rye. Brought back from near extinction, it was the whiskey that could stand up best in a cocktail.
It also came to be rediscovered as a sipper—a sometimes blasting, heat-filled, often spicy alternative to bourbon. But there was one slight problem. America’s distillers had nearly given up on rye, so there wasn’t much of it around. For years, only a handful of ryes populated the market—brands like Old Overholt, Rittenhouse, Pikesville, Wild Turkey, Sazerac, and Jim Beam—made by four distillers (Rittenhouse and Pikesville by Heaven Hill, Old Overholt and Jim Beam by Beam Suntory.) By 2010, there was a flood of ryes using sourced liquid, mainly from Indiana-based MGP—some of them excellent, such as High West Distillery’s Rendezvous rye. But very few distillers were actually making the stuff. That picture has begun to change dramatically in more recent years, as countless small and mid-sized distillers have begun to see their whiskeys reach maturity. So while rye’s popularity has been ongoing for some time, in many ways it’s just getting started.
Cocktails—and rye—made a comeback in the late 1980s with the reopening of the Rainbow Room. SUZANNE PLUNKETT / AP PHOTO
Kentucky, unsurprisingly, is doing its part in this new chapter of rye’s renaissance. After a century and a half of distilling, Old Forester released its first-ever rye whiskey in 2019, following with a single barrel expression in 2021. Michter’s, famed for its bourbons, has become just as renowned for its ryes. Kentucky Peerless has utilized its sweet mash fermentation technique to great success, producing rich, creamy ryes laced with dark fruit notes and spice. Its first whiskey, a rye, was released in 2017 and made Whisky Advocate’s Top 20, and all its expressions since then have scored 90 points or higher. Rabbit Hole Distillery dazzled last year with its barrel-proof high-rye Boxergrail Kentucky straight rye, while Wilderness Trail Distillery, which sources all its grains from a neighboring farm, has excelled with its Settlers Select single barrel ryes. New Riff has scored well with its bottled in bond rye (one of our Top 20 whiskies in 2019), and its innovative Backsetter Peated expression uses backset that came from a distillation of peat-smoked malted barley. Just about all of Kentucky’s distillers are now making rye, with the notable exception of Four Roses, which seems content to focus on its high-rye bourbons.
Cradles Of American Rye
The mid-Atlantic region of Pennsylvania and Maryland is the birthplace of rye, where distilling thrived from colonial times through the 19th century before declining with Prohibition. Pennsylvania’s rye history was centered along the Monongahela River in the west, and at its peak in the 19th century it had well over 100 distilleries. In both states, distillers are working diligently with local farmers to cultivate heirloom rye strains and replicate their states’ heritage styles. Pennsylvania’s biggest proponent is Dad’s Hat Distillery co-founder Herman Mihalich, while distillers in other states are taking similar initiatives. Two of our features in this issue—on Pennsylvania’s lost distillers (see page 82) and on rediscovering heirloom ryes (see page 74), explore these topics in depth.
Maryland boasted 44 distilleries in pre-Pro-hibition days, the biggest distiller in today’s new age is Sagamore Spirit, which opened in 2017 in Baltimore’s Port Covington waterfront neighborhood. Sagamore’s only product is rye whiskey, and to sustain its early years, it has relied on liquid from MGP. Last November, Sagamore released its first entirely own-make whiskey, a limited-release bottled in bond expression. Another release is expected in the fall. Own-make whiskey is now being included in other Sagamore releases, in small but gradually increasing percentages. The goal is to be using 100% own-make for its whiskeys by 2025. The distillery blends high and low-rye mashbills to achieve the Maryland style—full-bodied but sweeter, fruitier, and often more floral than Pennsylvania’s traditionally spicy high ryes. Sagamore is not hyper-focused on heirloom rye strains, but does grow rye at its Sagamore Farm, which is located about 25 miles north of Baltimore in Maryland horse country and is now being used for grain farming. Working with other local farmers, Sagamore aims to release a rye distilled from 100% Maryland-grown rye within the next few years.
Rye Across America
One other distiller seeking to recreate the Maryland style is located in Colorado, of all places, where Leopold Bros. Distillery’s Three Chamber expression uses heirloom rye and a three-chamber still—created to replicate the old stills used in Maryland and Pennsylvania during the 19th century. Elsewhere around the country, distillers are creating ryes of great variety. In Tennessee, Jack Daniel waited until 2010 to make a rye, but has now upped its game with its single barrel rye releases. George Dickel has gotten into the rye arena in concert with Leopold Bros., with George Dickel X Leopold Bros. Collaborative Blend. Hudson Distilling in New York and WhistlePig in Vermont have both leaned into local grains. In a somewhat different twist, the ever-creative Illinois-based FEW Spirits proofed its straight rye with oolong tea in 2020. Across the west, Sonoma Distilling in California and Frey Ranch in Nevada are making some high-level ryes, while High West continues to use more of the whiskey produced at its Wanship, Utah distillery. And as we featured in our Fall 2021 issue, Texas is a new whiskey frontier offering a vast variety of styles, including rye.
In looking at rye’s remarkable story, the perspective of some cold, hard numbers might be of interest. According to Impact Databank, rye whiskey sales in the U.S. grew more than tenfold in the decade ending in 2020, to roughly 15.6 million bottles, but that’s just over one-twentieth of bourbon’s sales, which reached nearly 222 million bottles in the same period. But all that really means is that rye has a lot more room for newcomers—and many more delights to come.