Kentucky has always had a tradition of making Rye Whiskey. In the 19th century, brands such as Old Crow, W.L. Weller, and other prominent brands of Bourbon each had a Rye Whiskey made under the same brand. Rye Whiskey played an important role in the United States whiskey market. It has historically been more popular than Bourbon in the northeastern cites of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, so Kentucky distillers provided whiskey to suit those consumers, as well as, Bourbon.

New York City was considered an important market for whiskey. It was the largest city in the United States and the population consumed a lot of whiskey. There were hundreds of businesses dealing in whiskey and other spirits in New York City and Kentucky distillers had business ties with those businesses and they wanted Rye Whiskey as well as Bourbon.

The American Civil War saw Bourbon make some inroads into the northeastern market as soldiers serving in the Union Army developed a taste for bourbon when they were serving in the Western Theater of the war and that was the whiskey they could easily get to drink. However, when they returned home, they often would return to their favorite brands of Rye Whiskey.

Kentucky distillers made rye whiskey that was of various styles. Brands such as Maysville Club from the Old Pogue Distillery was made from 100% malted rye. Other brands would use rye and malt while others started adding corn to their Rye Whiskey mash bills. This was because corn was less expensive than rye grain and added a sweetness to the whiskey.

Prohibition saw an end to a lot of distilleries in the United States. Many of the big brands of Rye Whiskey in Pennsylvania and Maryland were purchased by the “Big Four” distilleries – Schenley, National Distillers, Seagrams and Hiram Walker either during Prohibition or shortly after repeal or during the Second World War. This led to the slow decline and disappearance of the traditional rye whiskey distilleries in those states. Rye Whiskey brands were kept alive by Kentucky distilleries such as Heaven Hill, National Distillers (later Jim Beam), and Schenley. With the decline of whiskey sales in the 1970s and 80s, many rye whiskey brands traditionally made in Pennsylvania and Maryland started to be made in Kentucky. Kentucky distillers began making the Rye Whiskey using more corn to save money on the grain. Rye Whiskey as a category almost died out in this period. By the 1990s, Old Overholt, Rittenhouse, and Pikesville Rye were about the only brands available and they were all made in Kentucky. Canadian Whisky had replaced rye whiskey in many cocktails and in the minds of consumers.

The 21st century has seen a rebirth of Rye Whiskey. It is once again being made in Pennsylvania and Maryland as well as many other states. It is becoming a more varied flavor profile as artisan distillers in these States are returning to their roots and using heirloom rye grains, less corn and even traditional mash bills of just rye and malted barley or 100% rye malt. The future is looking bright and hopeful for the Rye Whiskey market. 

Kentucky is not being left behind in this regrowth of Rye Whiskey. Old Pogue Distillery produces Maysville Club Rye once again using 100% malted rye. Jim Beam brought back Old Overholt Bottled-in-Bond and introduced an Old Overholt 114 proof expression. Other artisan distilleries in Kentucky are making Rye Whiskey along with Bourbon. Rye Whiskey is growing in the marketplace and Kentucky distillers are paying attention to that fact. Rye Whiskey is part of Kentucky’s distilling heritage.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller