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Before There Was Bourbon There Was Rye: America’s Beloved Whiskey Is Back In Demand

Posted on  | February 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Wine and spirits delivery drivers in Iowa recently found themselves at the head of an unlikely procession, being intently trailed by multiple vehicles during their deliveries. A few drivers even called the police, although there was no real cause for alarm, according to Scott Bush, the man who could be held responsible for the situation. Bush is the founder and president of Templeton Rye, a relatively new entrant in the tiny 100,000-case American rye category that is inspiring incredible passion among drinkers in the hip lounges of Manhattan, the classic cocktail haunts of New Orleans and yes, even in Iowa, where demand for this local rye whiskey, conjured from the shadows of Prohibition, is 100 times what the distillery can produce.

Rye whiskey is still tiny—representing less than 1% American whiskey production, which is dominated by bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. A handful of distillers, including Heaven Hill, can be credited with carrying the mantle of rye whiskey through its darkest days. By maintaining heritage brands like Rittenhouse Rye and Pikesville Rye, whose names hearken back to rye’s pre-bourbon roots in Pennsylvania and Maryland respectively, Heaven Hill kept alive this vestige of America’s earliest distillers. Wild Turkey and Jim Beam also continued to produce their own labels of rye whiskey, both similar footnotes for these Kentucky bourbon behemoths.

“Once Prohibition and the war happened, and the smaller distilleries went under, the bourbon companies said, ‘Okay we’ll make the rye,’” explains Larry Kass, Heaven Hill’s director of corporate communications. “Rye continued mostly as shot-and-a-beer stuff. It was really in a slow, moribund sort of state, but as a family-owned company, we were able to maintain a few small brands as a service to our customers and distributors.”

By the 1990s, interest in classic cocktails started to emerge, and bourbon began to play catch-up to Scotch in terms of innovation, courting a new class of American whiskey enthusiasts, while a few influential writers, like Jim Murray in Classic Bourbon, Tennessee & Rye Whiskey, had the prescience to spotlight rye as the next big spirit. Kass says it was a “perfect storm” brewing for the long-forgotten category. Now, DISCUS predicts that new brands from distilleries, large and small, will fuel growth of rye between 30 and 40%.

Of course, the greatest issue is that you can’t simply produce aged rye whiskey with the speed of so much vodka. “We had a couple reactions. The initial was to start making more. For years we were literally mashing rye one or two days each year. Now, it’s one or two days each month. Obviously, we can’t age it any quicker, but we are at least creating the stocks,” says Kass. Heaven Hill was also inspired to search its vast warehouses for forgotten barrels of older ryes, which yielded a few treasures destined to become the single barrel releases of Rittenhouse Rye at 21-, 23- and 25-Years-Old. With careful management of existing stocks, Heaven Hill is now placing priority on supplying its reasonably priced flagship, Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond—a mainstay of luminary cocktail bars like New York’s Pegu Club.

Wild Turkey offers both its namesake rye and Russell’s Reserve Six-Year Old, both of which have become scarce in recent months. “The current surge in popularity around rye was very surprising to everyone in the industry. If you would have said 10 years ago that rye would see such a rebound, they would have laughed you out of the distillery,” explains Andrea Conzonato, chief marketing officer, Skyy Spirits. “The supply of rye for the entire industry is incredibly tight right now, and the popularity of Wild Turkey and Russell’s Reserve has resulted in them being on allocation in our key markets. Those constraints should clear up, however, this year.”

According to Conzonato the new rye drinker behind the boom is very different from the traditional rye consumer, usually a 25-39-year-old urbanite who enjoys cocktails and fine spirits. Conzonato explains that dedicated bourbon drinkers, while they may not be easily lured to other bourbons, will experiment with a rye whiskey. At the same time, he credits mixologists with spearheading much of the interest: “Bartenders are driving this revival because they are looking for spirits with more flavor. Also, the return to classic cocktails has played a very strong hand in the return of rye. I think most of the innovation in whiskey cocktails right now is coming from rye, rather than bourbon.”

Tom Bulleit would agree. Known for his namesake bourbon, containing one of the highest percentages of rye on the market today, Bulleit has now unveiled a rye as an extension to the portfolio. “The launch of Bulleit Rye answers requests that bartenders and mixologists have made to me over the years. Many bartenders are reintroducing rye into their recreations of classic cocktails, and in my travels across the country, many have asked me personally to produce a rye whiskey they could count on,” says Bulleit. “It was really important, however, we create a rye that was a quality product, and one that reflected the spirit and heritage of the Bulleit brand.”

At destination whiskey retailer Park Avenue Liquor in Manhattan, Jonathan Goldstein, VP, says he does nothing to promote rye in-store because he is already struggling to meet demand: “Tuthilltown Spirits from New York is allocated. Sazerac 18 is very hard to keep in stock. We get only a small amount of Templeton. These little brands try to fill in the gaps, but they are small, sometimes start-ups, so they can only produce so much. What is equally impressive is that the entry-level price point remains very low for the guys who have been into rye for a long time.”

In legal terms a rye whiskey must be made from a minimum of 51% rye, much the way bourbon must be at least 51% corn. In general, rye offers more dry, peppery spice as compared to bourbon’s caramel, vanilla and corn sweetness. However, as the category resurfaces, a broader range of styles and prices is becoming apparent among ryes. The most traditional ryes, like Rittenhouse, Jim Beam and Russell’s Reserve Six-Year-Old, are usually aged four to six years and under $20. These are especially good choices for classic cocktails like a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Sazerac.

Older reserve ryes are better suited to sipping, calling to bourbon and single-malt enthusiasts on the back bar. Rittenhouse 25 and the sought-after Sazerac 18 are current examples. “I think we were at the forefront when we launched Sazerac 18 about 10 years ago. It has set the standard, but we make it only one week a year,” points out Kris Comstock, brand manager, Buffalo Trace Distillery. “We have been increasing production, but with 18 years of aging that puts us at 2030. So, for now, I have to divvy it up state by state.” The standard Sazerac Rye, which averages six to seven years of aging, was an effort to increase availability with a younger product.

While reports suggest reserves of older rye stocks are drying up, many craft distillers are still surprising the market with excellent rye whiskey gems. Tuthilltown Spirits crafts Manhattan Rye and Government Warning Rye, New York’s first whiskies since Prohibition, in the Hudson Valley. In Utah, High West offers Rendezvous Rye Whiskey, a blend of 6-year-old,16-year-old and 21-year-old ryes. WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, a 10-year-old 100% rye whiskey of Canadian origin bottled by WhistlePig Farm Distillery in Vermont, is another example. And, if you can catch the delivery guy, there is, of course, Templeton. “The reason there are not many small whiskey companies with high volume is that it takes a lot of time and money to get there,” says Templeton’s Bush. “Our product sits in the barrel for at least four years, and while we thought we were being aggressive, we did not make nearly enough, and have to make due since we cannot go back in time.”

Yet, each rye whiskey on the shelf represents an opportunity for a whiskey lover to go back in time, to an era before bourbon, when rye ruled the day.


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