In July, a partisan crowd gathered at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual trade conference in New Orleans, for a debate titled “The Greatest Whisk(e)y Category Is . . . .” Organized by Derek Brown, owner of several D.C. bars and the spirits adviser for the National Archives, the argument pitted peat-loving sister against limestone- loving brother, brand rep against brand rep, whisky against whiskey.
Southern Efficiency’s J.P. Fetherston, arguing for the supremacy of bourbon, ramped up supporters with jingoistic appeals to their patriotism. Andy Nelson of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery waved a picket sign as his brother Charlie advocated the superiority of Tennessee whiskey. Georgie Bell, brand ambassador for Mortlach single-malt Scotch, held out for the peaty classic.
After a vote taken by noise levels (a crowd whose morning has been spent tasting spirits is not one to hold back), Chad Robinson, who as global ambassador for Catoctin Creek Distilling had made the case for rye whiskey, stood triumphant.
Even as Brown jokingly declared the results final and definitive, I wondered about audience bias. It was a crowd of young bartenders. Would the same debate conducted before septuagenarian Kentucky lawyers or proud Glaswegians have produced the same results?
I put the question out of my head, to make room for more cocktails. Until August, that is, when stats from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States announced that, since 2009, rye whiskey sales have jumped 536 percent by volume.
Rye seems to be having a moment. But dig a little, and you’ll find stories going back at least five years about its return. So maybe it’s less a moment than it is momentum, a climb out of the dustbin that might take decades to fully assess.
Rye’s spike, after all, is matched by the depths to which it had fallen.
“By 2001, rye was on life support,” says Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark and now head distiller at WhistlePig. (WhistlePig’s highly regarded rye is sourced from a distiller in Canada, though Pickerell expects the Vermont distillery will soon be making its own.) “No one was spending money on it,” he says. “The only people that were making it were guys that were primarily bourbon guys, and they’d turn on the distillery one day a year to make rye and then go back to bourbon.”
If there was ever a booze to blow a hole in the adage about there being no second acts in American lives, it’s rye.
Rye was distilled by President George Washington at Mount Vernon. Rye was largely behind the tax resentments that touched off the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. And rye was a spirit that godfather-of-bartending Jerry Thomas used in many of his drinks in the 1800s, that never quite rebounded after Prohibition and that, for decades, was seen as a dusty antique. But in 2009, it started to be made again at Washington’s distillery, a project Pickerell still consults on. Now — in part because of its long, unearthed history — it seems to be the belle of the bartenders’ ball.
Second acts? Rye’s on at least Act 5. And we may not have hit intermission yet.
Rye has been brought back by big, established whiskey distillers and initiated by small craft ones, including in states where it once flourished. The two contrasting styles, Maryland-style rye and Monongahela (or Pennsylvania) rye, can be quite distinct: Maryland rye contains less rye in the mashbill and more of other grains, such as corn — thus hewing closer to bourbon — while Monongahela is high-rye, bracing and zippy.
Lyon Distilling in St. Michaels, the first Maryland distillery since the 1970s to make a true Maryland rye, started distilling it last year.
Allen Katz, one of the founders of New York Distilling, which just released Ragtime Rye, grew up in Baltimore, where his grandmother would take him out for rye Manhattans.
For him, it’s part of authentic American gastronomy. Rye is a hardy crop, and early immigrant farmers, in a strange place, wanted to plant something that would feed their families and live through whatever the climate might throw at it. “Rye became a significant crop for the survival of this country,” he says.
Those farmers were making bread, but they were also making a ton of whiskey. “When we look at agricultural records, we see in the 1900s, the country is growing a tremendous amount of rye,” says Meredith Grelli, co-owner and co-founder of Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh, which just released its straight rye. “And then as soon as Prohibition hits, farmers just stop.”
Until she started researching, Grelli had no idea how deep Pennsylvania’s whiskey history went. The farmers of western Pennsylvania played a major role in the Whiskey Rebellion; Wigle Whiskey is named for Philip Wigle, who during that tumultuous time achieved the great American dream of beating up a tax collector. He was sentenced to hang but pardoned by Washington.
Most visitors to Wigle don’t know about the rye’s history; many used to ask when Wigle was going to make a bourbon (which it now does). “I know in Pennsylvania — and Pennsylvania is a top-five consumer of spirits, so I think it’s fairly representative — 98 percent of American whiskey sold is bourbon and 2 percent is rye,” Grelli says.
And there’s the rub. Even with that 536 percent jump, rye still represents only 1 percent of all the whiskey sold in the United States: a drop in the barrel.
Still, that’s why the “moment” seems more like momentum to me. Rye sales don’t even scratch the hide of 800-pound gorillas like bourbon and Scotch. But if you put rye sales on a bell curve, says Nick Crutchfield, master of whisky for Diageo — which has multiple Scotches in its portfolio, but also has Bulleit rye — the rise “would start around 2006, and then somewhere around 2011, it just shoots up. And I don’t think we’re going to see the other side of the bell for years.”
Months after the whiskey debate at Tales, I asked Brown whether the bartender demographic had affected the results. He laughingly confirmed my suspicions. “Rye has become the symbol of the cocktail renaissance,” he said. “Nothing symbolizes this change in mores more than the advent of rye. Because it was done, gone. Nobody cared about rye.”
Nobody, that is, until the mid-’00s, when craft bartenders began reviving old drinks and fell in love with rye’s spice and arcane cool, its history, its authenticity, the way its typically high-proof and spicy, dry qualities give it the pop to stand up to big vermouths and other powerfully flavored ingredients that might kick many bourbons under the carpet.
“It was the bartenders who have always preached an appreciation for our ryes and told us to continue producing them, even when consumer demands were low,” says Eddie Russell, master distiller at Wild Turkey, which now makes five ryes, including the new Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel.
Doug Atwell, head bartender at Rye in Baltimore, recalls getting docked a point in a bar skills test because, when the instructor asked for a Manhattan, Atwell didn’t ask what whiskey he wanted; he just made a rye Manhattan. When the instructor pointed it out, Atwell remembers cheekily responding, “Oh, sorry — I just assumed you wanted a good Manhattan.”
It wasn’t just craft cocktails, either: The combination of a cheap PBR or Schlitz beer and a shot of Bulleit rye — “any bar I worked in, any bartender who came in, that’s what they called,” says Crutchfield. The pairing became an industry handshake even as the industry helped rye return.
“For craft bartenders, this is our victory,” says Brown. “This belongs to no one else. It’s people who were passionate about it and told people, ‘Stop making your old fashioneds with bourbon. Stop making your Manhattans with bourbon.’
“It doesn’t mean it’s better than other whiskeys or better than gin. But rye is the thing that we brought back.”
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.