photo by Audrey Dempsey

I am convinced, now, more than ever, that what was once old is new again. That is certainly the common theme in our industry. A category like rum, for example, which experienced such resounding growth and popularity during the colonial days from what would eventually become this great country, was king of distilled beverages. If one was not distilling rum, one was certainly consuming it! Certainly, long before whiskey became a household staple and a major commodity. At different intervals in this country’s history during the decades that followed Prohibition and more recently, rum piqued the interest of spirits consumers worldwide. This was indeed the similar path that rye whiskey has followed.

Rye whiskey is enriched with so much history and importance that I struggle with what essential facts need to be mentioned versus the ones that have to be sacrificed like innocent lambs. Long before bourbon became a household name (circa 1820s), rye was the style of whiskey that started it all in this country. In 1640, William Kieft, Director General of the New Dutch Netherland Colony, established the very first New World commercial distillery and Wilhelm Hendrickson is credited as this country’s first master distiller whom experimented with rye distillates. 

Rye whiskey’s popularity began skyrocketing just years prior to the Revolutionary War as the British continued to impose higher tariffs on molasses and began blockading trade routes to the Caribbean making it more difficult for the colonialists to produce and/or purchase rum. Without question, the two biggest rye whiskey producing states, Maryland and Pennsylvania, had two very distinct styles and flavor profiles from one another. Pennsylvania rye would become known as the more robust, earthy, spicy of styles, whereas Maryland’s style was more composed, delicate and finessed. And, let us not forget, our very first President, George Washington, was this country’s largest whiskey producer in 1798 after he had stepped down from office. Mount Vernon was a very majestic distillery and property located in Virginia and has been fully restored to its past glory. And, these whiskeys did not see long periods of maturation in barrels like they did beginning in the second half of the 19th century on. 

Piggybacking off the Industrial Revolution, the 19th century brought many technological and scientific innovation from which our whiskey industry reaped the benefits and continued to grow and evolve. Since it wasn’t until 1870 when Old Forester became the very first company to offer commercially bottled whiskey, one would merely go to their local watering hole and either consume their fill there or come equipped with their own cask, flagon or other vessel for storing their own domestic stock. 

Immediately following the Civil War there was a major whiskey shortage and unethical and hazardous blending practices came about that ultimately forced the government to become involved in spirits production oversight and eventually acts such as the Bottle-In-Bond Act (1897) and The Pure Food & Drug Act (1906) were passed. From the 1870s-1919, the liquor industry was booming and experiencing its first major Renaissance. Breweries and distilleries were opening up everywhere and by the 1880s the whiskey industry became responsible for almost 40% of this country’s GDP! Then, just like any satire, tragedy sadly struck! Following World War I, we again experienced another whiskey shortage. But, the sledge hammer that forever changed this country’s landscape, The Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition (a.k.a. The Noble Experiment), peeked its very ugly head. This 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 and went into effect one year later on January 17, 1920. When the 21st Amendment was finally ratified on December 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed and alcohol manufacturing, transportation, sale and consumption was once again legal. However, very serious damage was done! Many of this country’s earlier and great rye producers did not come back. For those that did reestablish themselves, in the following years they either were purchased by another company or sadly closed their doors for good. 

Rye whiskey was holding on by a thread, especially those in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Luckily, over the years, the larger bourbon producers and other whiskey producers continued to produce some rye whiskey. As the global resurgence of classic cocktails began trending globally in the early 2000s, and in the years to come, a high demand for rye whiskey from bartenders started taking precedence. This was due to many of our country’s great pre- and post-Prohibition cocktails being made with rye whiskey. Whatever few rye brands were available were purchased and consumed faster than producers could release. And, just like that, rye whiskey was in high demand again. Although, during my years as a buyer, I very much recall a period from roughly 2010-2012 that rye became so popular amongst the bar community and whiskey consumers everywhere that we experienced a shortage for a while. 

Fortunately, with this new and unprecedented growth and Renaissance in the alcohol beverage industry we are currently experiencing, the rye whiskey supply has caught up with today’s grueling demand. We can now find many styles of rye whiskey, young and old, readily available or very scarce, for cocktail mixing or sipping leisurely by producers old and new, and big and small. The craft distillers are constantly keeping the TTB on their very busy toes and slowly continue to expand the horizon of spirit styles, laws, innovation and creativity. 

In Part 2 of this article next month, I will go into detail and address many of the commonly asked American whiskey questions and misconceptions, the laws and introduce you to some must-have rye whiskey brands. And, soon you’ll realize exactly why I am “Smitten with Rye!” 

To be continued ... Cheers!