I was looking at a document from the first decade of the 20th century the other day that was a study of barrel aging and saw the reference to “Bourbon Style Corn Whiskey”. I thought to myself that Bourbon really is simply a style of corn whiskey. Then I started thinking about rye whiskey. What are the styles of rye whiskey? That started me looking at old trademarks and other bits of information looking for rye whiskey styles.

Rye whiskey is simply any whiskey made with 51% or greater rye in the mash bill:

  • Straight Rye – aged in new charred cooperage for at least 2 years
  • Whiskey from a Rye Mash – a rye whiskey aged in used or uncharred cooperage

These are categories of rye but not really styles in the same way the document was referring to Bourbon. After more research, I have what I consider different “styles” of rye.

Pennsylvania Rye

“Pennsylvania Rye” is rye whiskey made in Pennsylvania but that seems to be a fairly recent term. In the 19th century this type of rye would be referred to as “Monongahela Rye.” This rye used little or no corn in the mash bill and used rye and barley malt to make the beer. There was probably a great deal of variation in the percentage of rye and barley in the recipe.

I used to think that when a brand was labeled “Pure Rye” then it was all rye grain in the mash bill but I have come to believe this was a way to distinguish the brand from a Maryland style rye. Monongahela rye could be aged but not always. There are many references to aged and old rye whiskey from the early 19th century so we do know it was sometimes aged.

However in the 1860s the unaged version was popular enough that when Pierre Lacour wrote his recipe for rectifying Monongahela rye in his book The Manufacturing of Liquors, Wines and Cordials without the Aid of Distillation, he writes “This is to be colored to suit fancy. Some customers prefer this whiskey transparent, while others like it just perceptibly tinged with brown; while others, want it rather deep, and partaking of red.”

This indicates that there was a variety of ages available in the mid-19th century. Today many distilleries are making Monongahela style rye, some with as high as 95% or even 100% rye in the mash bill. Of course that would not be a 19th century Monongahela unless the distiller was malting the barley because these real high percentage ryes are using artificial enzymes to convert the starch to sugar.

Maryland Rye

Next we have “Maryland Rye.” This is indeed a style of its own. Maryland rye is a rectified rye using flavoring agents such as prune juice, cherry juice, caramel coloring and other ingredients to make different brands. A modern example of A Maryland style rye would be the Basil Hayden Dark Rye which is a mixture of straight rye, Canadian rye and Port wine. Many Maryland ryes were so highly rectified that when the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted in 1906 they simply quit making them rather admit what was in the whiskey. These whiskeys probably ranged in quality as did most rectified whiskeys. The best were probably made by marrying straight rye whiskeys and pure ingredients like Port or some other fortified wine and fruit juices. They must have been popular for the style to grow outside of Maryland.

Kentucky Style Rye

Finally there is the relatively new category of “Kentucky Style Rye”. After World War Two rye whiskey distillation in Pennsylvania and Maryland started to decrease to a point that it disappeared altogether for a while. The respected and well-selling brands ended up in the hands of Kentucky distillers. Rye is more expensive than corn so the Kentucky distillers started making a “Barley Legal” style of rye that is only 51% or so rye with a high corn content. This rye thus has a very Bourbon-like sweetness from the corn.

New Ryes On The Horizon

In the last two decades of the 20th century Kentucky style rye was really the only option in the liquor stores. That started to change in the 21st century for a couple of reasons. First there is the growth of artisan distilleries. These distilleries are making rye whiskey and using a variety of mash bills. The second reason for the change is the creation of LDI/MGP when Seagram exited the spirits industry. This distillery started to sell barrels of rye whiskey originally intended for the Seagram blended whiskeys and this included rye with little or no corn in the Monongahela style of rye. It is to be hoped that this trend continues to grow. Kentucky Style rye is good whiskey but it is nice to see the older traditional styles make a comeback.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller