A look at Rye Whiskey in America

Bourbon has deep roots in our country, but we need to take a look at rye whiskey in America. Scotch-Irish Immigrants were used to distilling with barley. When they realized that it did not grow well in the North American climate, they found a substitute by using rye. Many farmers owned small stills to create their new whiskey.

Two states, Pennsylvania and Maryland, lead the country in the production of rye whiskey. Each made rye whiskey with the Maryland version being sweeter. Maryland used more corn in the mash bill, while Pennsylvania used predominate rye.  After the revolutionary war, rum was challenging to find, and many furloughed soldiers went back to their farms and began distilling grain. These early distillers were mostly farmers that realized that you could store whiskey much longer than raw grain.

Around 1810, rye whiskey production went from simple farm stills to more industrial production. Pennsylvania led the way by shipping more than 6 million gallons of rye whiskey. During this same period, the state of Kentucky produced about 2 million gallons of bourbon. At this point in American history, rye whiskey lead the way.

The decline of rye whiskey

Prohibition dealt a severe blow to rye whiskey. Rye was more expensive to produce and, therefore, was one of the first whiskeys to fall out of favor. When you are producing illegal liquor, you create the easiest product you can. Because the government-subsidized corn, this was another advantage over rye. Also, Canadian whiskey began marketing rye whiskey that was substandard. Some bottles did not have a hint of rye grain in them despite being advertised as rye whiskey. It eventually became a bottom shelf product.

The return

In the middle of the bourbon boom, people began to experience other brown liquors. Rye is still a small percentage of the whiskey marketplace. But it has grown remarkably since 2008. Many people that enjoyed rye bourbons began to experiment. Bartenders began to offer authentic cocktails from the past that utilized resurgent rye whiskey varieties.  Distillers recognized an opportunity by venturing back to a whiskey that has historical significance.

photo of three bottles of Rye Whiskey
Knob Creek, Old Maysville Club, and Minor Case Rye Whiskey.

Three ryes to sample

During my travels, I have tested multiple versions of rye whiskey. Three that are memorable are Old Maysville Club, Minor Case, and Knob Creek. These unique American spirits will provide a tasting tour of rye. Each of them is a look at rye whiskey in America that is currently available.

Old Maysville Club

Easily a one of a kind rye whiskey that is distilled by the Old Pogue Distillery in Maysville, Kentucky. It is 100 proof and contains a one hundred percent rye mash bill. The key to this spirit is the malting of the rye, which produces a dominant, distinctive taste. It may take some time to understand the nuances, but this is one rye that is special to me. I enjoy the cereal grains that show through, but I also taste some cherry cordial and dark chocolate. I have not seen this whiskey available outside of Kentucky. If you are used to traditional rye, I suggest trying this one at the distillery or a bar before investing in a bottle. The flavor profile is specific, but I believe you will enjoy it.

Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey

This whiskey obtains a lot of its flavor by being finished in sherry casks. It is sourced from Indiana and bottled by Limestone Branch Distillery in Lebanon, Kentucky. This 90 proof rye is very smooth and sweet. You immediately pick up the influence of sherry cask aging. It is a young whiskey that benefits from the additional barrel aging in used sherry casks from Meier’s Winery. I do not usually enjoy young whiskeys or even those that are barrel finished. However, the flavor profile is one that I enjoy. It is sweet with a hint of rye spice, and It is worth seeking out.

Knob Creek Rye Whiskey

We featured this rye during our online tasting last week. It is both mature and a solid entry to the rye whiskey universe. Not overly complicated, just a good rye whiskey that will not disappoint you. The rye is not overbearing, and you will get vanilla, along with sugary-sweet notes. Knob Creek is a 100 proof product of Beam Suntory.  If you get a chance to visit their Clermont, Kentucky distillery, you will be able to sample Knob Creek Rye. The Beam tasting is unique in that you can select the products you would like to taste. There is a wide variety of Beam offerings to choose from after your tour.