The first recorded history of whiskey in America was a rye whiskey. In the year 1640 William Kleft, The Director of the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam, ordered distillation of a rye whiskey. Rye was the grain of choice in the Netherlands and Germany and this reinforces my thoughts that the Germanic culture had as much to do with American whiskey traditions as the Scottish and Scotch-Irish people in Colonial America. The making of Rye whiskey was popular in the areas of settlement of Germanic peoples, The “Pennsylvania Dutch” for example. The Beams, the Overholts and the Schenks are all early distillers from the Pennsylvania area that came from what is now Germany or Switzerland.
Rye whiskey was popular in those areas because rye grew well there – probably better than corn. This original rye whiskey was an unaged product made by farmer distillers on the frontier area around modern Pittsburg, but also larger operations further east near Philadelphia. It grew in popularity after the American Revolution as the supply of sugar cane from the West Indies dried up because of British political maneuvers. America had to create a new source of distilled spirits to fuel the demand.
By the 1820s rye whiskey started to become an aged spirit. In the novel Moby Dick, Melville describes the blood coming from a harpooned whale as “red as some Old Monongahela” showing that aged rye was popular and Americans would recognize the simile. However there was still enough demand for unaged rye that in the 1860s book of rectifying by Pierre Lacour he gives recipes for both aged and unaged Monongahela ryes.
Rye whiskey was a very popular spirit in the northeastern United States throughout the 19th century. The fact is there were more people living in that part of the United States than there were in the southern or the western States. Rye production in Pennsylvania and Maryland was the predominate spirit but rye was also made In Kentucky and other Ohio Valley States that had thriving whiskey industries.
Pennsylvania rye was mostly a straight rye whiskey. Maryland rye was mostly a rectified rye with flavoring agents such as cherry or prune juice added to give it a sweeter flavor. Both styles were very popular in the 19th century but the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 almost killed Maryland Rye as a category. It was forced to be labeled as a blended whiskey at time where straight whiskey was growing in popularity. Prohibition was the next big blow to rye whiskey’s popularity.
With the repeal of Prohibition distilleries in Pennsylvania and Maryland came back but not as many as there were in Kentucky. Maryland rye as a blended whiskey eventually lost sales as aged Bourbon became plentiful and the distilleries started to close. In Pennsylvania, the state came back as a control state and the politicians were not friendly to the distilling industry. Rising taxes and stricter regulations than in Kentucky made it uneconomical to continue to distill in Pennsylvania. The growing popularity of Bourbon reduced the sales of Pennsylvania rye so companies such as National and Schenley moved rye production to their distilleries in Kentucky. Many New Englanders started to drink Canadian Whisky and referred to it as “Rye” since the Canadian Whiskey was mostly made with rye grain.
In the late 1960s and 1970s all whiskey sales declined as the generation of young drinkers drank more wine, beer and spirits like vodka and Tequila. Only a few of the old Pennsylvania brands like Old Overholt and Rittenhouse survived and they were made by Kentucky distilleries. Jimmy Russell states that at its low point a single day of distilling Wild Turkey Rye each year would cover the needs for the brand. Rye whiskey almost disappeared as a style of whiskey in the United States. It would take the growth of interest in Bourbon in the 1990s to start bringing rye back as a popular style of whiskey.
Rye is making a comeback. It is growing in popularity and the larger distilleries are making more rye, but still not nearly as much as Bourbon. The last I heard from Jimmy Russell is now it takes about a week of distillation each year to fill their demand. I think it will continue to grow. This growth fueled by several factors. In the 1990s Julian Van Winkle introduced a 13 year old rye and created an interest in more mature rye whiskey. The growth of the artisan distillery movement has also fueled this growth as they make and sell more rye whiskey. Old Portero rye out of San Francisco proved in the 1990s that a young rye can be enjoyed for its flavor. Since then there have been many new distilleries making and selling a younger rye.
The artisan movement is even making grounds in bringing back the rich distilling heritage in Pennsylvania. It is hoped that the politicians will see the value of this as they examine the growing tourist trade in Kentucky that focuses on distilling history. Pennsylvania and Maryland need to throw off the prohibition attitudes and reclaim their distilling history while supplying the country with some of their excellent rye whiskeys.
Photos courtesy of Pixabay and Maggie Kimberl