The most popular whiskey used in classic cocktails, rye has often been neglected by the modern drinker, overshadowed by bourbon and scotch. Only recently has rye begun to resurface in classics such as the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Sazerac.
What makes rye different than bourbon?
While very similar in terms of production, rye and bourbon have some important differences. As previously discussed (see whiskey), rye is one of the common grains used in the creation of whiskey. By now you’ve probably guessed that rye is made predominately from rye grain (i.e. at least 51%), giving this whiskey a spicier flavor that is a bit drier than bourbon. The U.S. regulations for rye are similar to bourbon, although without the convenient ABC’s:
- 51% Rye in the mash bill
- New charred oak barrels
- Distilled at no more than 160 proof (80%).
- Entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof.
- Bottle must be filled at at least 80 proof.
Like bourbon and corn, most ryes have a much higher percentage of rye than 51%, with some containing up to 100% rye in the mash bill. For a product to be labeled as straight rye, the whiskey must be aged for at least 2 years, similar to bourbon.
While this is generally true, there are a few bourbons that have a higher rye content (still 51% corn) and will hold up well in a Manhattan, such as Eagle Rare and Knob Creek.
Why does rye taste better in most classic cocktails? This comes back to the flavor profile of rye vs bourbon. Using most bourbons in a Manhattan results in the sweeter whiskey and vermouth causing the drink to become less balanced. Rye pairs better with vermouths and other sweet ingredients, counterbalancing them with its drier, more robust flavor. Put another way, rye adds contrast and the extra spice shines through in the final product, giving the cocktail more depth and complexity.
Isn’t Canadian Whiskey Also Called Rye?
Yup. Confusing for sure. Canadian whiskey originally contained high amounts of rye in its mash bill. More recently, however, the vast majority of Canadian whiskeys have contained much larger percentages of corn than rye, giving them a significantly sweeter taste. Canada also doesn’t have strict rules on whether the whiskey qualifies to be labeled as rye and thus many lower rye whiskeys are still often referred to as Canadian rye.
So WHY WAS RYE LOST in these classics? Unfortunately, prohibition is again largely responsible. To better understand why, let’s start with some background.
Prior to the 18th amendment, there were many rye distillers, including our first president, George Washington. The majority of these folks were Scotch/Irish settlers who brought the craft of distilling whiskey with them to the states. Rye became the most commonly consumed spirit in America, replacing rum, which was cut off by the Caribbean British settlements after the Revolutionary War. The styles ranged from the spicier 100% rye Pennsylvania Monongahela to the smoother, lighter Maryland version.
Ironically while a distiller himself, Washington support the new taxes on spirits that resulted in the whiskey rebellion.
In 1791, the Whiskey Excise Tax was enacted, raising taxes on distilled spirits, in hopes of beginning to pay back government debts from the war. As expected, many distillers protested vehemently, leading to a movement was known as the Whiskey Rebellion, which lasted until 1794. Multiple protests occurred and even resulted in a few casualties. Many distillers gave up the fight and moved to the new state of Kentucky, which did not yet have the infrastructure to enforce this tax. Many accounts claim that it was these distillers moving to Kentucky that led to the creation of bourbon, not Elijah Craig.
Once prohibition began, the majority of distilleries shut their doors and Americans were unable to obtain their beloved whiskey. Many turned to smuggled Canadian rye; however, due to its lighter nature, Canadian rye was not received as well as its American counterpart. Rye lost its luster and was left associated with the “rotgut” produced at the time as well as the vastly different taste of Canadian whiskey. When the 21st amendment ended prohibition, the damage was done and rye never quite rose to its pre-prohibition status.
Thanks to prohibition‘s desecration of the classic cocktail, the average “uninitiated” American palate grew to favor sweeter drinks, furthering the dominance of bourbon in these classics. –We’ve all been there. It is only when folks are exposed to rye, either accidentally or via interest in whiskey/cocktails, that they develop a greater appreciation for this classic American spirit. Fortunately, along with cocktails, rye is making a comeback due to a renewed interest in classic mixology.