Before Prohibition, rye whiskey was the most popular whiskey in the United States. The big brands were based in Pennsylvania and Maryland, but Kentucky distillers also offered rye whiskies. W. L. Weller, Old Crow and others had rye whiskey versions of the brand. There was a “Pure Rye” that was rye and malt (often rye malt) offered to consumers as well as rye whiskey with a healthy amount of corn in the mashbill. After Prohibition many Pennsylvania and Maryland distilleries came back but rye continued to slip in sales as Bourbon became more popular. Canadian whiskey also came to be known as “rye” and ate into the sales of the traditional American Rye whiskey brands. Schenley even took some their American whiskey brands and made Canadian whisky brands out of them. The OFC and Gibson brands became Canadian whisky in the 1950s. Sales continued to decline in the 1960s to a point that many of the Pennsylvania distilleries were closed. This was made easier for the big companies like National and Schenley as Pennsylvania regulations and taxes created an atmosphere that insured that the decision was to close the distilleries and move out of the state. By the 1990s Pennsylvania did not have a major producer of straight whiskey in the state.
Rye whiskey became a Kentucky distilled product and even there it was a very small percentage of the distillation happening in the state. Jim Beam had acquired National in the 80s and now Old Overholt and Jim Beam rye were being offered to the market in the United States by Beam. Wild Turkey rye and Heaven Hill’s brands Rittenhouse and Pikesville rounded out the choices to Americans shopping for rye whiskey in the 90s. These ryes were a “Kentucky Style” rye that was a barely legal rye of just over 51% rye with corn and malt.
The growing interest in Bourbon also saw a greater interest in rye whiskey. Julian Van Winkle was one of the first to recognize this interest and created a label for some 13 years old rye he had purchased from United Distillers in the early 90s. The next company to show interest was the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers with the offering of Extra Aged Willett Rye, also purchased from United Distillers for the most part. These barrels were often created to go into Schenley blended whiskeys but those sales were tanking as interest grew in Bourbon. Barrels of rye could be purchased fairly cheap.
After Seagram’s owners decided to play at Hollywood socialite instead of distiller and sold the brands and distilleries, the Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery entered the whiskey market in a big way. There were many barrels of rye whiskey created to support Seagram’s blends that could now be purchased by people who wanted to enter the whiskey business. They furnished the whiskey for many companies both openly and in secret via a non-disclosure agreement. This explosion of brands and availability created a growth in the rye whiskey market that continues to this day. It also created a market that was dominated by rye whiskey from one source – Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The result was that many people thought that Lawrenceburg rye was the way that rye should taste. Let’s face it; that was the whiskey in most of the new brands on the market.
There were still the older established brands in the market as well as the many Lawrenceburg, Indiana supported brands when a third factor entered the scene – independent distilleries. These small artisan distilleries started creating rye whiskey as part of their brand portfolio. The problem there is that it takes years for whiskey to age properly so most of these new ryes were young, aged in small barrels so were dominated by wood tannins and not the sweet wood tones such as caramel and vanilla and finally offered only to limited markets. The first to hit the market in the 90s was Old Potrero from San Francisco. A barely aged rye made from rye and rye malt. Others followed with products from Old Pogue (Five Fathers), Corsair (Ryemageddon), Dad’s Hat, and many more. Dave Schmeir entered the market with Redemption rye in 2010 using MGP rye and ironically got pushback because it did not taste like Rittenhouse rye. Some of these distilleries now have offerings around 4 years old and aged in full sized barrels. They are improving in quality with age, but also as the distillers themselves learn the ropes and become more skilled.
Rye whiskey is becoming a more varied flavor style of whiskey. You have the “Kentucky style” which is a high corn rye. There are many who are making what was known as “Pure Rye” of near or at 100% rye. There are straight ryes and whiskeys made from a rye mash but aged in used cooperage. Flavors from new make rye to young rye in small barrels dominated by tannins to ryes aged in full size barrels for up to 20 years. There are a variety of products now available to the consumer. I hope that this will continue and we will see an even larger growth in demand for rye whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl
March 20, 2017 at 1:36 pm
The allegation rye whiskey dominated sales before Prohibition is a whiskey myth against the historical facts. Although rye did enjoy two years when it just piped bourbon.
Before the Civil War, records were intermittent, especially when revenue was not collected. Analysis from primary sources 1790 to 1810, indicates rye’s volume share, when compared with ‘Western whisky’ (as you are aware the term bourbon has not been coined yet), bounced around between 85% and 60% of total whiskey. No data was collected after 1811, until after the Civil War. Nor have I uncovered reliable statistics when excise was briefly reintroduced 1814 – 1817. Excise returned in 1862 in the Union States e.g by 1865 only 36,778 gallons was distilled, 258,615 less than 1862.
From 1867 until 1878 the Government aggregated all spirits in barrels (31-gallon capacity). From 1878, the Government split bourbon and rye out separately with rye holding 30% of the whiskey volume. Bourbon and rye together held 16% of total spirits withdrawn for consumption. Dominated by alcohol/high wines, presumably mostly rectifier’s spirit and corn-based distillate; although it worth remembering straight or pure whiskey was not a classification until 1910. Rye did enjoy two years of momentary supremacy before Prohibition when it gained an edge over bourbon: 1896 rye reached 53% and again in 1902 with 51%.
October 1, 2017 at 1:04 am
Good article, Michael. Wonder what will prevail. Kentucky high corn rye or old style 90 plus percent rye
July 29, 2019 at 7:33 pm
From a processing standpoint, i’d say traditional bourbon. High rye content mash is much more difficult to handle and sticks everywhere. It gums up pumps and piping and other equipment. The reason so much 95% rye comes from Lawrnceburg is that their system can handle it better than most.
September 2, 2019 at 4:00 pm
There are many rye whiskeys out there now that are “barely legal ryes” with only about 51% rye and a lot of corn. Yes, they do taste a lot like Bourbon.
April 8, 2021 at 9:26 pm
Can you give an example of a pre-prohibition rye being made now?