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” 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.
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
May 21, 2018 at 12:38 pm
Michael, I rarely disagree with you but, I think the use of fruit juices in Maryland rye is overstated here. Yes, juice was added to some whiskey in Maryland years ago and other places too as it was in style for a while just like so many flavored whiskies are on the market today. But you seem to imply here that Maryland didn’t make and real rye whiskey and I know that to be untrue. Most of the larger distilleries in Kentucky also make a flavored or honey bourbon today but that does not diminish the great bourbon that they produce. And the fact that hundreds of distilleries outside of the state of Maryland have imitated the Maryland style rye (none of which have any juice in them) tells me that most don’t agree with your generalization that Maryland style rye is tainted prune juice whiskey.
May 21, 2018 at 8:52 pm
Maryland made rye whiskey but before 1906 it was highly rectified with flavorings and color. After 1906 many of those brands disappeared from the market but a few remained. They were not bad products but simply not straight whiskeys that were popular with the consumers of the era. There were several distilleries that came back after prohibition but most ended up in the hands of companies like Schenley and Seagram that used their whiskey in their blended products. Schenley sold a Melrose straight “Maryland Rye” but the term represented the geographic location more than the pre1906 style.
May 21, 2018 at 12:52 pm
Michael, are these new rye whiskeys being aged in a New, Charred Oak Barrel?
May 21, 2018 at 2:53 pm
If they are straight rye whiskeys, they have to be aged in new cooperage.
May 21, 2018 at 3:07 pm
Got it! Thanks Michael! I appreciate your knowledge and quick response! Very professional!
May 24, 2018 at 12:20 pm
Loved this review! I never understood the difference between the Maryland and the Pennsylvania style before. This was such a clearly explained article. Just great!
June 1, 2018 at 8:38 pm
I am glad you liked the blog. It will be interesting to see if Maryland Rye comes back. I have seen it already in the Basil Hayden Dark Rye. That is what I would call a modern take on a Maryland Style Rye.
June 1, 2018 at 10:01 pm
Michael, so far you are the only person that I know to hold the opinion that Maryland style rye is defined as whiskey rectified with juice and I have spoken to many on the subject. He’s some of my thoughts on the topic http://whiskeyenthusiasts.com/styles-of-rock-styles-of-rye/
June 2, 2018 at 12:04 pm
Thanks very much for the reply and for the always informative blog!
June 5, 2018 at 12:03 am
Pennsylvania and Maryland distillers traded stock across the border on and off for years, mostly after Prohibition it seems. I have seen labels from Pa. distillers that say “Distilled in Maryland.” Maybe some Maryland collector has seen the opposite?
July 16, 2018 at 5:04 pm
Possible. I know Schenley had distilleries in both States and were known for shifting whiskey between distilleries when needed.
July 17, 2018 at 11:39 am
Sam, you are certainly correct. In fact, at times some of the Pikesville Rye stock was distilled in PA.
July 26, 2020 at 1:00 pm
I started Distillery 291 in Colorado in 2011 with a rye whiskey using malted rye. 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey White Dog is my clear whiskey which took 2020 World Whisky Award for America’s Best New Make.First time presented.
In 2016 World Whisky Awards 291 Colorado Whiskey Aspen Stave Finished which is the same rye aged took America’s Best Rye (no age statement). First time presented Then in 2018 291 Colorado Rye Whiskey won World’s Best Rye Whisky.
In 2012 Jim Murray gave 291 Colorado Whiskey barrel #2 94pt and in 2018 gave 291 E batch #3 100% malted rye 96pt.
I love making rye whiskey and love that you brought all this information of rye styles to light!
July 26, 2020 at 4:18 pm
I am glad you liked the blog. I would love to try your straight rye. I admit that have tried you Aspen finished rye and found it too tannic for my taste. I would love to try your rye simply aged in oak. I will look for it.
September 26, 2021 at 7:05 pm
Would you consider the Angel Envy rye a Maryland style Rye?
September 26, 2021 at 9:40 pm
Good question. I would say no because finishing is different from adding flavor agents in theory, but Angel’s Envy Rye taste more like Rum than rye whiskey. According to Taft, you can’t even call it whiskey if you add Rum as a flavoring agent.