Rye: America’s almost-forgotten whiskey
“Tell me what brand of whiskey that [Gen. Ulysses S.] Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
— President Abraham Lincoln
By Bob Lipinski
Rye, an American whiskey, was the favorite of President George Washington. In 1797, Washington constructed a large whiskey distillery adjacent to his gristmill on the banks of Dogue Creek in Fairfax County, Virginia. The enterprise became the most successful whiskey distillery in early America, producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey in 1799, worth the then-substantial sum of $7,500. James Anderson, a Scotsman, supervised the distillery.
Rye whiskey was first distilled in 1750 in Pennsylvania by local farmers who blended it with corn. Rye’s domination was short-lived because in 1783 bourbon whiskey was made and became the whiskey of choice of middle America.
Additionally, rye, along with bourbon whiskey, was affected by Prohibition. This was followed by soldiers returning from World War II who had developed a taste for Irish and Scotch whiskies. Production of rye whisky had almost vanished altogether from its Mid-Atlantic homeland by the 1980s. A handful of modern rye whiskies are currently being made by bourbon distilleries, mostly in Kentucky.
Rye whiskey is made from a fermented mash of grain containing at least 51 percent rye; the remainder of the grain mixture generally consists of barley, corn, oats and wheat. Although technically rye whiskey can contain 100 percent rye, few distillers exceed 90 percent.
It can be distilled at no higher than 160 proof. It must be stored at no less than 80 proof and not more than 125 proof in new, charred oak barrels ranging in capacity from 50 to 66 gallons.
“Straight rye whiskey” must be aged a minimum of two years. If it is released prior to the fourth year of aging, it must be stated on the label. In addition, no alcohol, caramel coloring or flavoring can be added.
It is produced in many states in the United States (most notably Kentucky), in addition to Canada, Germany, Russia, other Slavic countries and the Netherlands.
During the 1950s and 1960s when ordering a highball or Presbyterian cocktail at a bar, people incorrectly referred to Seagram’s 7-Crown, Canadian Club Whisky and Seagram’s V.O. as “rye whiskey.” Rye is an ingredient in Canadian whisky and American-made blended whiskey, but during that era, it never reached a minimum of 51 percent to be labeled “rye whiskey.”
Some brands of “American” rye whiskey are Bulleit, Classic Cask, George Dickel, George Washington’s, Hirsch, Hudson Manhattan Rye, Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Michter’s, Old Overholt, Old Potrero, Redemption, Rittenhouse, Russell’s Reserve, Sazerac, Templeton, Van Winkle Family Reserve, Wild Turkey and Willett.
Rye whiskey has flavors of caramel, ginger, spices, pepper and slight bitterness (rye bread) with hints of cinnamon, cloves, damp earth, grass, herbs and nutmeg.
Some recommended cocktails using rye whiskey are Manhattan, whiskey & club soda, highball, Presbyterian, sours, old-fashioned, and the Sazerac Cocktail.
Bob Lipinski, a local author, has written 10 books, including “101: Everything You Need to Know About Whiskey” (available on Amazon.com). He conducts training seminars on wine, spirits and food and is available for speaking engagements. He can be reached at www.boblipinski.com or [email protected]