The New Whiskey Rebellion

Paul Blow

Blame Prohibition. Blame it for a lot of things, including this: September has been declared National Bourbon Heritage Month.

Not that bourbon doesn’t deserve the honor. But rye whiskey, the quintessentially American, rough-and-tumble, frontier-mentality spirit, should get a nod, at least.

Preston Van Winkle’s family’s Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery is one of the country’s top producers of both bourbon and rye. He explains the taste difference: “Imagine what corn pudding is like,” he says by phone from Kentucky, “and then think of rye bread. Bourbon’s a lot more user-friendly, more palatable,” while rye is “a little spicy, kind of harsh—a knock-down, kick-you-in-the-teeth kind of drink, your grandfather’s whiskey, the kind of thing you find half drunk with an old crumbling cork stuck down in the neck of the bottle.” A spirit must contain at least 51 percent corn to be called bourbon and at least 51 percent rye to be called rye whiskey. (Read our whiskey primer for more info.) In practice most contain about 70 to 80 percent of their base grain.

Although rye is fashionable among a certain cadre of hep, old-school spirits aficionados, its unruliness can be a little harsh for some. It’s easy to see how rye might have been displaced by something more sweet and accessible. But it wasn’t always the underdog.

George Washington had a distillery, and he made rye whiskey. You drink what you grow. And along the cold Eastern seaboard of this country—particularly in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—rye, a hearty grain, is what grew.

The first legislative blow came in 1794 with the Whiskey Rebellion, when the government used its federal might to tax whiskey producers (who were making rye). The government never managed to collect much tax money, but the advance of its forces caused some distillers to scatter out of the rye belt and set up shop in what is now Kentucky and Tennessee, which at the time were outside of federal control. There they found corn and began the tradition that would become bourbon.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, rye whiskey was king and gave us classic cocktails like the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, and the Sazerac. Then came Prohibition, and Americans developed a taste for what was available on the black market, primarily imports—Scotch and Canadian whiskies, which were rye-based but blended to be soft, smooth, and innocuous. By the time Prohibition was repealed, the American palate had grown to prefer the sweeter, gentler touch of bourbon to the fiery rye.

Because of rye’s general unpopularity over the last couple of generations, distillers stopped making much of it. Rye’s putative comeback has been spurred by some who have taken a historical interest in what Americans drank, people like Fritz Maytag, whose Anchor Distilling started producing Old Potrero rye to “attempt to re-create the original whiskey of America.” Anchor makes both 18th- and 19th-century-style 100 percent ryes. The 18th-century style uses uncharred barrels, as would have been found at that time; the 19th-century style uses caramelized wood, which makes a sweeter, more bourbonlike spirit. But both are true ryes, and to taste them you can get a sense of rye’s rough-edged nature. This brawling style can be found in the ryes that have been made continuously—Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and to a lesser degree Old Overholt, which is the lightest and the most accessible, though still delicious.

What is harder to find now is aged rye, which has been mellowed, sweetened, and enriched by years of barrel aging. There was little old stuff to begin with, and the renewed interest in the last few years has made it even more scant. Of course, now there’s a rush to produce more, but aging it properly will take, well, years. If you can find ryes like the Sazerac 18, Michter’s 10, Black Maple Hill 18, and Rittenhouse 21, snap them up, as they’ll only be harder to come across over the next decade or more. Only 290 cases of the Van Winkle rye are sold each year, says Preston, in an effort to make it last as stocks are replenished. But once they are, rye might eventually return to its rightful status on the backs of American bars. And then we’ll see what kind of action Congress takes.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.