Like an aging, out-of-shape boxer taking body blow after body blow in fight after fight, rye whiskey was hanging on for dear life for many years. Even the spirit’s most ardent fans must have feared, in their heart of hearts, that the end was near.
It seemed inevitable that the historic whiskey’s smoother and more nimble opponent—bourbon—would end a centuries-old grudge match, settling once and for all the question of what is America’s favorite homegrown alcohol.
But in the grand tradition of a Hollywood happy ending, rye has recently staged a late-career comeback worthy of George Foreman.
Between 2009 and 2014 sales of the spicy whiskey have, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, climbed by a meteoric 536 percent.
Rye has suddenly and improbably become the It Drink of the moment—so popular that it’s once again threatening bourbon’s dominance. (Bourbon is, of course, no pushover, enjoying its own impressive rebound over the last 15 years.)
But the competition didn’t start out as one-sided as it seems. And to truly understand the epic saga, you need to go all the way back to the beginning of the battle.
Before we can talk about whiskey we need to talk about rum, since the British colonies along the northeast coast of America were famous for distilling the spirit from molasses obtained from the sugar plantations dotting the Caribbean. During the revolution, the British ended the shipments of molasses, which forced a soon free but now very thirsty America to make other kinds of liquor. Rye was particularly popular in the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states since it was a good cover crop and could survive a brutally cold winter. After retiring from politics, George Washington even owned the country’s largest rye whiskey distillery on his estate Mount Vernon.
When people started to settle more southern areas, they began to use corn to make alcohol, which is an easier grain to grow and distill. (It also produces a sweeter and smoother spirit.)
“The Americans got no help from heaven or the saints but they knew what to do with corn. In the heroic age our forefathers invented self-government, the Constitution, and bourbon, and on the way to them they invented rye,” wrote Bernard DeVoto in his 1948 drinking treatise The Hour.
“Our political institutions were shaped by our whiskeys, would be inconceivable without them, and share their nature. They are distilled not only from our native grains but from our native vigor, suavity, generosity, peacefulness and love of accord.”
Kentucky was the epicenter of bourbon production throughout the 1800s.
In fact, by 1896, The New York Times reported that the production of the whiskey outstripped demand. Brands were sitting on 90 million gallons of whiskey, while consumers were putting away just 20 million gallons per year.
The problem was so great that the state’s distilleries planned to shut down for 18 months.
“The pressure has been heaviest on the bourbon whisky men of Kentucky, because their market is restricted,” wrote the Times. “Bourbon is not a favorite in the East or South. It is drunk mostly in Kentucky and in the West. It is made from corn, not rye, and the East prefers a rye or a blended whisky. The South drinks either rye or that deceptive variety of corn liquor that is known as ‘Mountain Dew.’”
During this period, according to a later Times piece titled “Bourbon on the Potomac,” by Luther Huston, that ran in 1946, the competition was so great taverns in Kentucky only carried bourbon and referred to rye as “bastard whisky.”
Huston goes on to say that people in Kentucky still call rye by that moniker today.
The intense rivalry between rye and bourbon was put on hold because of World War I, Prohibition and then World War II.
By the late 1940s, the distillers were finally able to make whiskey again. But unfortunately for rye producers, there was a small problem: Rye’s big, bold and brash flavor profile had gone out of style.
Post-war America was taken with smooth, blended Scotch and sweeter bourbon. (According to press accounts, Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson both favored blended Scotch and Truman was a major bourbon fan.)
That’s not to mention the fact that many of the Mid-Atlantic’s rye farms had stopped growing the grain or had been turned into homes, thanks to the housing boom.
Bourbon took full advantage of the situation and enjoyed a golden age of production throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
The bourbon distillers were even able to push through Congress a bill in May of 1964 that called bourbon “a distinctive product of the United States” and stated that it can only be made in this country, which prevented foreign countries from trying to produce the whiskey.
It also gave bourbon the same status as luxury spirits Scotch and Cognac.
By the 1970s, rye distilleries across Maryland and Pennsylvania were on life support and shutting their doors—one by one—for good.
But the bourbon distillers couldn’t take much of a victory lap, since there was suddenly, like out of a Rocky movie, a new and terrifying foreign heavyweight contender, vodka.
But this wasn’t just an American whiskey problem: in general, young adults didn’t want to drink brown spirits like their parents and grandparents.
Not only was vodka suddenly in vogue, but California wine and craft beers were also taking off. It looked like both bourbon and rye, according to Max L. Shapira, president of American whiskey stalwart Heaven Hill, just might go up to that great liquor store in the sky.
Winner: Bourbon (barely)
In a bizarre twist of fate, bourbon producers bought up some of the floundering rye whiskey brands and continued to produce the liquor at their facilities in Kentucky.
The traditional party line is that they did it because they didn’t want to see historic rye whiskey disappear completely.
It certainly sounds reasonable and given that rivalries often bring out the best in each competitor it’s understandable that they might want rye to exist.
Bourbon companies like Heaven Hill, which added Pennsylvania rye Rittenhouse and Maryland rye Pikesville to its portfolio during this period, were also just trying to eke out a living in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and were forced to expand into other spirits categories.
Even though rye might not sell what it used to, there was still a shrinking but loyal consumer base that was still buying the brands. (Usually these drinkers were living in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but there was also a growing market for the spirit in Europe and Japan, which helped each these brands stay in production.)
It also didn’t take much to keep up with demand. For many years, just three Kentucky distillers would make rye whiskey a couple days a year, digging out the recipe to remind themselves how to produce the spirit.
At the turn of the century a strange thing happened: The cocktail came back into fashion.
In cities like New York, London, San Francisco and LA, pioneering bartenders and bar owners began opening throwback watering holes that made drinks the traditional way with fresh juices, simple syrup and bitters.
And if a drink, like the Manhattan, had traditionally called for rye, by golly they would actually use—you guessed it—rye instead of substituting bourbon, which had been the common practice.
This rebirth coincided with the sudden popularity of single malt Scotch, which helped usher in a new whiskey age.
As consumers’ palates became more experienced they once again developed a taste for bigger and fuller spirits like maritime Scotches from Islay and naturally straight rye whiskey.
Plus, rye’s cred as America’s first and now lost whiskey made it the perfect product for drinkers obsessed with artisanal and heritage products.
While this renewed interest in rye couldn’t have come at a better time, it also caused a problem: not enough supply. All the years of making just enough meant that there wasn’t a lot of mature rye whiskey to be had, and many brands became hard to find on store shelves.
While scarcity can sometimes help grow notoriety (looking at you Pappy Van Winkle) for rye it was definitely a stumbling block that allowed bourbon to once again slake the thirst of American drinkers.
This situation continued for several years since even though the distillers were now making rye more frequently—once or twice a month—it would take several years of aging before it could be bottled.
Supply was so tight that some brands began buying straight rye whiskey from Canadian distillers and discreetly not mentioning that fact.
In 2007, the bourbon distillers were able to get the Senate to pass a resolution calling September Bourbon Heritage Month, which is still observed today.
The resolution refers to bourbon as America’s native spirit. Rye drinkers around the world spit out their drams!
Fortunately, we’ve reached a point where the big bourbon distillers, like Heaven Hill, Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, once again are making plenty of rye whiskey each year and are selling new bottlings every season. (Heaven Hill just released a $50 six-year-old, 110-proof Pikesville Straight Rye, which will be sold nationally. The classic three-year-old 80-proof Pikesville Rye will still be sold exclusively in Maryland.)
The craft distillers, some of which are in Pennsylvania and Maryland, are also now bottling or producing a range of rye whiskies.
Many of these new ryes, from both big and small brands alike, are sourced from the same distillery in Indiana. There’s also a wide selection of straight ryes coming from Canada, which are now proudly marketed as Canadian.
Bourbon may still be king (and holder of the title of America’s native spirit), but rye seems to be getting ever stronger and better suited for the next round of battle to attract new drinkers.
As a fan of both whiskies, I’m looking forward to seeing this fight play out for years to come.