Rye Whiskey on the Rise

Rye whiskeys have a long and storied history in the United States; prior to Prohibition, it was our nation’s whiskey of choice. George WhiskeyWashington distilled rye at his home in Mount Vernon, and it was at the center of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.

For more than century, rye whiskey production centered in and around Pennsylvania and Maryland, areas where large numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants settled and applied their collective knowledge and expertise in distillation. Following World War II, however, sales of rye whiskeys went into a protracted slump, a decline that reflected the steady rise in popularity of soft-blended whiskies and light mixable spirits. By the 1970s, rye whiskeys had all but disappeared from U.S. bars.

Fortunately, that trend has reversed, and the bold, exuberant flavors of American ryes have again attracted a broad following. It’s easy to understand why after a sip or two. The whiskeys are broad shouldered and have a lot of personality, a character no doubt molded from our collective national self-image.

Noted journalist and whiskey authority Lew Bryson can shed some light on how much the category is growing: “I recently spoke with master distiller Craig Beam at Heaven Hill [in Bardstown, Ky.] They distill a great deal of rye whiskey. He told me that about five years ago they used to mash and distill rye once a year. Now it’s once a month. In my book, that’s a bona fide resurgence.”

Heaven Hill is not alone. Many of the major producers now are marketing at least one label of rye, which must be made with no less than 51% of rye (the typical balance is malted barley and corn). If your whiskey-loving clientele is looking for a singular taste experience, suggest they set their sights on American Straight Rye Whiskey.

Fueling its revival is the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the rise of the mixologist. As the earliest rendition of American whiskey, rye was used almost exclusively as the foundation of 19th century cocktails that called for whiskey.

“We’re in a time in which authenticity in cocktails is in high demand,” observes Angus Winchester, drinks expert and master mixologist. “Today, bartenders scour vintage drink recipe guides searching for long-forgotten classics. Eventually, that pursuit instills them with deference for rye whiskey. It was prominently featured in cocktails of the golden era; not just as a result of being in wide supply, but because the whiskey imbues cocktails with incomparably intense flavors.”

Aidan Demarest agrees. The bar manager at mega-popular The Spare Room in Hollywood says that he’s yet to find another whiskey able to match the brilliance of rye’s spicy notes in a cocktail.

“Until a year or so ago, few bars carried more than one label of rye, if any at all,” Demarest says. “Now people are clamoring for a broader selection of ryes, especially when it comes to brands affordably priced. There are legions of enthusiasts out there who like to sip cocktails popular in bygone eras.”

Rye Behind the Bar

“It seems whiskey aficionados naturally gravitate to the dazzling, complex flavors in rye. It takes a seasoned palate to forge past the alcohol hit to appreciate its sweet valleys, nutty woods and high spicy peaks,” Demarest says. “When making cocktails, I like to enhance its inherent spiciness with fresh ginger or ground pepper. When mixed, I think rye whiskey performs rather like tequila and therefore pairs beautifully with citrus, fruit and spice. As far as styles, it’s superb featured in a Sazerac, Manhattan and Old Fashioned.”

Cocktail guru and drinks consultant Jonathan Pogash also sees the similarities between rye and tequila. “I recently created a cocktail that paired equal parts of the two. The Rye Teq Cocktail No. 1 is made with (ri)1, El Tesoro Añejo, Benedictine, lime juice and two types of bitters. The drink’s been really well-received.”

Pogash thinks rye’s versatility and bold spicy notes makes it perfectly suited for drink making. “I recently created a rye-based cocktail called the Jane Russell. Borrowing a page from the tiki playbook, I blended together two whiskeys with distinctively different personalities — Russell’s Reserve Rye and a lesser amount of Rittenhouse. The result was sexy and curvaceous.”

American rye whiskeys are surprisingly affordable and mixable, much to the delight of a new generation of mixologists. Let the games begin.


Jane Russell
Specialty of Brian Miller, Death & Company, New York City.

Coupe glass, chilled
Pour ingredients into an iced mixing glass.
1½ oz. Russell’s Reserve Rye
½ oz. Rittenhouse Rye
¼ oz. Antica Sweet Vermouth
¼ oz. Grand Marnier
¼ oz. Benedictine
1 dash Bittermen’s Mole Bitters
Stir contents and strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

(ri)se and Fall
Specialty of Jonathan Pogash.

Highball glass, iced
Build directly into glass.
2 oz. (ri)1 Rye Whiskey
1 tsp. maple syrup
3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
3 oz. Q Tonic
Garnish with marinated sour cherries.

Rye Teq Cocktail No. 1
Specialty of Jonathan Pogash.

Cocktail glass, chilled
Pour ingredients into an iced mixing glass.
1 oz. (ri)1 Rye Whiskey
1 oz. El Tesoro Anejo
½ oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. Benedictine
3 dashes Bittermen’s chocolate bitters
1 dash Regan’s orange bitters
Demerara syrup to taste
Shake contents vigorously and strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Old Pal
Specialty of Angus Winchester.

Cocktail glass, chilled
Pour ingredients into an iced mixing glass.
1 ounce rye whiskey
¾ ounce dry vermouth
¾ ounce Campari
Stir contents and strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Manhattan (The Jerry Thomas version)
Specialty of Jonathan Pogash.

Cocktail glass, chilled
Pour ingredients into an iced mixing glass.
1 tsp. maraschino liqueur
1½ oz. (ri)1 Rye Whiskey
1½ oz. sweet vermouth
3 dashes Boker’s Bitters
Stir contents and strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.


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