Rye whiskey, noted for its strength and spice, is on the ascent. While rye itself—defined as a whiskey made with at least 51% rye grain—has been around for centuries, there have never been so many variations and expressions available. Today, it seems like every distillery has its own spin on the historic spirit, from the use of heirloom grains to unusual cask finishes.
Unlike corn-based bourbon, which can only be made in the U.S., rye can be made anywhere. Both the grain and whiskey made from it have globe-spanning roots. Since the Middle Ages, rye grain has been cultivated in central and eastern Europe, where it was valued as an ingredient in bread, writes Carlo DeVito in his 2021 book The Spirit of Rye. From there, the hardy grain, which flourishes in cooler climates, found its way to the British Isles and what is now Scandinavia and was brought by colonists to the U.S.
“It was a popular grain because it was easy to grow and a reliable winter cash crop for states within New England as well as New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Michigan,” DeVito says—all areas that now have regional rye whiskey heritages. “It was no surprise then that many of the first distilleries in Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania predominantly produced rye whiskeys.”
By the 1820s, rye whiskey had started to become a barrel-aged product. But a decade later, when Prohibition went into effect, many U.S. distilleries ceased or reduced operations, and American rye became harder to procure. Canadian whiskey, including rye, featured prominently in bootlegging to the U.S. during Prohibition.
Rye never really recovered from Prohibition; even after World War II, whiskey from Canada, Ireland and Scotland took up the slack. As American distilleries attempted to restart operations, bourbon made headway first. It wasn’t until the cocktail resurgence of the late 1990s and early aughts that demand for American rye returned: The lean, spicy whiskey plays well in mixed drinks, and was specifically called for in many classic recipes.
Driven by bartenders seeking rye to mix into historically accurate cocktails, that’s when the latest—and most dynamic—chapter for rye really began.
New York Distilling Company Barrels / Photo by Gabi Porter
Does It Matter Where Rye Is Grown?
Allen Katz, distiller and cofounder of New York Distilling Company, was on the scene when demand for rye started bubbling up. “It’s been an evolving revival for close to a generation of cocktail drinkers,” he recalls. “If you go back to the not-so-distant past, if you asked for a rye Manhattan there was probably only one offering, Canadian rye.”
His Brooklyn craft distillery opened in 2011. While it could have focused on any spirit, rye became one of its hallmarks. From a distiller’s point of view, Katz notes, bourbon was already a saturated market: “I love bourbon, but as a distiller, there’s not a lot I could add to the conversation. It’s already been covered by the stalwart brands in Kentucky and elsewhere,” he explains. “The one available to explore is rye.”
He introduced Ragtime Rye, a vibrant, “cocktail-focused rye” made with New York state-grown grains, in 2015. Two years later, NYDC became one of the founding distillers at Empire Rye, a New York state whiskey appellation.