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Rye Whiskey

It seems I’ve dedicated quite a few posts to bourbons on this blog but have left out another great American classic: rye whiskey. Different in taste, less smooth but with a strong spicy character of its own, rye whiskey has just as impressive a history as bourbon.

In the United States, rye whiskey is, by law, required to contain a minimum of 51% rye in its mash. It is distilled to no more than 160 proof and aged in the same charred, new oak barrels I’ve already mentioned numerous times. As it leaves the whiskey still, it must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof. It is bottled at no less than 80 proof. The labeling rules are the same as for bourbon: it is considered “straight rye” if it’s been aged for at least two years, if aged for less than four years, the label must state the age. If the exact age is not stated, that means the whiskey has been aged for a minimum of four years. If it’s a blended whiskey, then it needs to state the age of the youngest whiskey in the blend. It should contain no added colorings, flavorings or additional sprits.

Although many refer to Canadian whisky as “rye whiskey”, there’s no justified reason for that. It’s true that historically Canadian whisky contained more rye than the American, but it wasn’t necessarily made from a majority of rye. Canadian Food and Drug regulations actually state there is no requirement for rye to be used to make whiskies with the legally-identical labels "Canadian Whisky", "Canadian Rye Whisky" or "Rye Whisky" in Canada, provided they "possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky". Today, most Canadian whiskies are blended to achieve that character, adding a flavoring whisky made from a rye mash (and distilled at a lower proof) to a high-proof base usually made from corn or wheat. In fact, Canadian whiskies with most or all of their mash consisting of rye are an exception. Unlike US "straight rye whiskey", a minimum of 3 years aging in 180 gallon wooden barrels is required for a “straight Canadian rye”; barrels don’t have to be new oak though, nor charred.

Compared to bourbon, rye is noticeably spicier, fruitier and drier. As bourbon gets its sweetness from corn, this also impacts the rye taste, depending on what grains the rest of the 49% is made up of and how much of that is corn. Usually, those grains include corn, wheat, malted rye, and malted barley, in any combination. The proportions used by large commercial producers are usually 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malted barley. Large Kentucky distilleries generally use this formula, but since rye has regained its popularity in the last few years, craft distilleries are also producing more rye, as well as experimenting with different grain options and even 100% rye mashes.

Rye whiskey was very popular, especially in the North-East, in states like Pennsylvania and Maryland but was produced in other areas too, each region adding a distinctly unique character to the liquor. Pittsburgh was the main rye production spot in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the beginning, the rye made in Pennsylvania was actually 100%, with some malted rye in the blend but no corn or barley; this was known as Monongahela-style. Rye largely disappeared after Prohibition and since Kentucky remained the main place where it kept being produced, many of the other regional styles died out.

George Washington was famous for his distilling and his rye recipe. The distillery on his estate, opened in 1797, was one of the most successful business enterprises at Mount Vernon and the largest in America by 1799.  Five copper pot stills produced whiskey using Washington’s original mash bill: 60% rye, 35% corn and 5% malted barley.  When George Washington died, an inventory listed peach, apple and persimmon brandy, plain whiskey, and cinnamon whiskey stored in the mansion’s basement.  It is thought that all these items were made at Washington’s distillery and served to guests.

Anchor Distilling in San Francisco were the first to dust off historic recipes in 2003 and make rye in the style of George Washington: with small copper pot stills and little aging, which is generally what mellows the spirit. Anchor takes pride in their small batches of rye and their use of beautiful custom-made copper pot stills (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/travel/rye-whiskey-is-back-with-flavors-of-american-history.html?_r=0&pagewanted=1 ).

Mount Vernon Distillery  has set out to recreate the original recipe in the slightest details, including the same place, and was asking, earlier this year, for $95 per bottle of the most authentic Washington rye available today.

Posted by Jason Stone on


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