Before there was bourbon, there was rye. Rye, America’s second successful homespun spirit (after rum), rose to prominence following the American Revolution. George Washington owned one of the nation’s largest distilleries—producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year in 1799. Many classic cocktails—the Manhattan, the Sazerac, the Vieux Carré—are rye-based, though some started as Cognac cocktails and others morphed into bourbon drinks.
During much of the 20th century, rye was considered something of a working man’s drink. In the movies of the 1950s and ’60s, reporters and returning soldiers would drink a shot or two, but by the 1970s or so, rye was all but forgotten by casual imbibers.
With the cocktail revolution of the 2000s, rye has returned to prominence, now made better than ever. Its spicy, bold character stands up well in mixed drinks, and craft bartenders quickly snapped up what little of the spirit was available: there was a rye shortage in the early 2010s well before there was a bourbon shortage.
Unlike bourbon, rye can be made anywhere, though the finicky grain grows best in the northeastern U.S. and cool-weather Canada. In Canada, while there are 100% rye whiskeys, there are few regulations on what constitutes a “rye,” and the bottle you’re drinking may contain as little as 5% rye grain in the mash bill (the mix of grains fermented into alcohol). In the U.S., to be called a “straight rye,” the mash bill must include at least 51% rye grain (the rest usually being wheat or corn and a bit of malted barley), and meet distillation and barrel-aging requirements. Like bourbon, it must be aged in charred, new oak barrels, limiting its diversity (though “finishes”—throwing the aged rye into a cask that once held sherry or pinot noir—is allowed). The finished product, thanks to the base grain, is generally heavy on spices: pepper, nutmeg, clove.
Last year, Woodford Reserve, best known for its Kentucky bourbons, released a rye whiskey. With a 53% base rye (the rest is corn and malted barley), Woodford’s goal was to create a distinctive aromatic and flavor profile. Rye itself can be fairly brash (like any single grain). Woodford’s Master Distiller Chris Morris and his team set about finding an expressive spirit that works as an elegant introduction, and yet, is not a “safe” spirit. It’s deliberately “out of balance,” according to Morris, to emphasize spice notes. He and his team sought to add overtones to rye that aren’t always emphasized beyond vanilla, spice and caramel. Morris finds mint, banana, cinnamon and other notes, all of which work very nicely with complex dishes—after all, pairing rye with meals is the next step in reclaiming it as a spirit for the ages.
Rye’s best-kept secret: it possesses a ton of citrus notes, which work well with fatty dishes, from pork belly and ranch dressing to buffalo wings and braised pears. On its own, a well-made rye pairs particularly nicely with cheese. Semi-firm, nutty cheeses with a slight tang, like traditional Welsh or Irish cheddars, work particularly well. The sweet-spicy-savory notes of barbecued and sauced meats also fuse nicely. But it can go so far beyond that.
“Woodford Reserve Rye cocktails pair well with pork and chicken,” says Morris. “Among my favorite dishes are a chicken or pork dish, dressed with apple or pear compote.”
For Chef Edward Lee of Louisville, Kentucky, rye can’t help but extend itself to other dishes beyond cheese and grilled meats. “Rye whiskey works with the preparation we do on octopus,” he says, of his professional cooking. “We char the octopus, such that it still has that salty, aquatic flavor, but it’s very charred. That picks up the vanilla notes. We serve it with jalapeño and some soy sauce, and it picks up the rye really nicely.”
The key is fruit: while the dominant notes on a well-made “high rye” are spice notes, they are fruit rather than brash. Think the charm of jalapeño with its apple and prune notes, over the boldness of habanero or a ghost pepper, which simply project heat. “I know it’s inaccurate,” says Chef Lee, “but I say it’s a pleasant spice. They both give you pleasure in their heat, but one offers so much more.”
For Morris and Lee, the biggest thing is that diners are starting to recognize rye whiskey as its own category. “When I was first working in Brooklyn, whiskey was whiskey,” says Lee. "If a customer wasn’t ordering a branded vodka or single, they were ordering ‘whiskey.’” He notes his was one of the first bars in Brooklyn to specifically order Woodford Reserve bourbon. Over the course of the past decade, awareness changed, and ordering “whiskey” was insufficient. “We’re becoming much more grain knowledgeable. The level of specificity, as a chef, is surprising and great. In the same way you understand wine through the lens of the grape, you understand now that whiskey has great diversity. Rye is a great role player and it bumps up the drink.”