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American rye whiskey: A beginner’s guide and seven to try

America's original whiskey was made from rye. The ‘spirited’ whiskey would ignite a rebellion and lay the groundwork for the American whiskey tradition. Clive Pursehouse explains what American rye whiskey is, how it tastes and recommends seven bottles to taste.

In 1791, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, under President George Washington, was looking for a way to defray the costly war with the UK. He passed an excise tax that was approved by Congress despite resistance from Thomas Jefferson. That tax was on ‘spirits distilled within the United States’.

A rye rebellion

Scots-Irish immigrants were growing grain and making whiskey from rye in the hills around the city of Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania. They protested the tax and refused to pay. These farmers, many of them quite small, were distilling their excess grains rather than risking spoilage by attempting to ship them to Philadelphia or New York.

Washington issued a proclamation in 1792 admonishing those who would not do their part to support the new republic. Over a couple of years, the protests continued, growing violent. In Pittsburgh, shots were fired, and a group of 400 men burned the regional tax collector’s house to the ground.

In 1794 President Washington garrisoned a militia and marched on Pittsburgh to quell the rebellion. When he arrived, everyone had dispersed without a shot being fired. A total of 150 men were rounded up and arrested. Two were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

Washington would later pardon both men, John Mitchell and Phillip Wigle.

America’s rye whiskey roots were hard-earned.

This guide explains what American rye whiskey is, how it’s made and recommends several good options to explore.

Credit: Thomas Thompson on Unsplash

What makes a whiskey a rye whiskey?

No longer the stuff of rebellions, there are still several US laws that create guidelines for what can and cannot be labelled as ‘rye whiskey’.

A rye whiskey’s ‘mash bill’ (grain composition) must be 51% rye. Rye whiskeys are typically made from 51% rye, as well as other grains, usually wheat, corn and barley. The most common mash bill for a rye whiskey is around 51% rye, 39% corn, and 10% malted barley. Rye is a hearty grain capable of surviving snow and cold temperatures that will kill other cereal grains and also survive in poor soils.

American rye whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. However, no ageing requirements are stipulated.

American rye whiskey may contain additives for flavour or colour.

Alcohol content. There are three different stipulations required of rye whiskey’s proof throughout its production.
◦ Rye whiskey must not be distilled at higher than 160 proof or 80% abv.
◦ Rye whiskey must not be higher than 125 proof (62.5% abv) when barreled.
◦ Rye whiskey must be 80 proof or higher (40% abv) when bottled.

How is rye whiskey aged?
Ageing requirements are not stipulated for ‘rye whiskey’. A ‘straight-rye’ whiskey must be aged for at least two years.

Special rye designations:

Straight-rye: No colouring or flavouring additives are allowed. A straight-rye must be aged for at least two years in barrel. If aged less than four years an age statement must be included on the bottle.
High-rye: Any whiskey with more than 51% rye but typically containing around 70% rye.
Empire rye: A straight rye whiskey produced in New York State with at least 75% rye. This rye’s distillation must occur during just one season.
Monongahela rye: Grown originally in the hills around Pittsburgh, it’s the whiskey that sparked a rebellion. Monongahela rye originally contained 100% rye. Modern takes on the mash bill range from 68% to 95%. Monongahela rye has no corn, using malted barley for the remainder of the mash bill.

What does American rye whiskey taste like?

The flavour profile of rye whiskies varies dependent on the amount of rye in the mash bill. Rye whiskey made with minimum amounts of the grain in the recipe may take on character similar to bourbon based on how much barrel ageing it has undergone. Higher content rye mash bills show the grain and its unique spicy characteristics. Peppery spice notes and fresh herb character tends to be a hallmark of American rye whiskey.

‘The history of rye as the grain of necessity for many of the earliest American whiskey distillers is well documented,’ says Bruce Joseph, master distiller at Old Protrero. ‘If you take a present-day pot distilled, traditionally made rye whiskey, it’s a good look back at the original process of how it was made in North America.’

‘The main difference between bourbon and rye is that bourbon is typically sweeter,’ Joseph continues.‘It’s lighter, and commonly called “smoother,” however, the mashbill in bourbon can still influence the palate presentation. For example, a wheated bourbon vs. a high rye do have differences, despite being bourbons. On the other hand, rye whiskey is traditionally spicier, and in my opinion, more flavorful and complex.’
Top whiskey and whisky deals for Black Friday

American Rye for beginners: seven to try

Cutwater Whiskey American Rye

From a blend of a number of straight-rye whiskies aged at least four years in new oak barrels. Aromas of toasted almond, black peppercorn and notes of Christmas spice. The flavours are deep and honeyed, with poached pear backed by white pepper Alcohol 45%

District Made Straight Rye Whiskey

From the nation’s capital comes a whiskey made with Abruzzi rye, a strain that is extremely cold hardy and originally came from Italy. A mash bill of 57% Abruzzi rye, 29% Malted Rye and 14% corn. This whiskey is frisky—aromas of toasted almonds, fresh ground cinnamon and ripe pears. The palate is showy, with molasses, honey and candied peach. Alc 47%

Old Potrero 6 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey 

From the San Francisco distillery, a West Coast take on America’s original whiskey—double pot distilled and aged at least 6 years in charred American oak barrels. The mash bill is 100% rye, showing the grain in its most true essence. Its aromas are laden with spice notes of white and red peppercorn alongside notes of marzipan and brown sugar. The palate shows ample spice with cardamom and walnut. Alc 48.5%

Templeton Rye Stout Cask Finish 

Matured for six years in new American oak charred barrels and finished in bourbon barrel-aged chocolate coffee stout casks for three months. A whopping 95% rye and 5% malted barley. The barrel ageing really makes its mark on this whiskey, smooth and with plenty of depth. Aromas of oak spice, sweet hay, mocha and caramel lean into a palate of honeyed pear, fresh-cut bell pepper, cocoa powder and nutmeg. Alc 46%

Wigle Whiskey Pennsylvania Straight Rye 

Named for one of the two men convicted of treason in the Whiskey Rebellion, this rye whiskey pays homage to America’s original whiskey roots. It is milled, pot-distilled and fermented all in the epicentre of America’s whiskey uprising, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This whiskey offers plenty of spicy aromas, complimenting notes of baked pear and bright apple. Flavours of nutmeg, cinnamon and white and black peppercorns finish. Alc 42%

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof Rye

A blend of four, six and eight-year-old Kentucky straight-rye whiskies that are bottled directly from the barrel at 112.2 proof. This is an artisanal commitment to true rye whiskey. Caramel, honey, and vanilla aromas are backed by notes of white pepper. It all leads to a palate of rich caramel, toasted oaky flavours, baked pear and baking spices. Wonderful. Alc 56.1%

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Rye

Woodford started producing rye whiskey in 2015. The mash bill clocks in at 53% rye, 33% corn, and 14% malt. Aged for at least four years in a new barrel. Loaded with spicy signature rye aromatics, cracked peppercorn and a hint of molasses. Marked by rich sweet flavours of honey and spiced apple on the palate. Alc 45.2%

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