Rye whiskey is having a bit of a moment these days. It’s now not only made in its heartlands in America and Canada but there are great rye whiskeys being made in England, Holland, Australia, Scandinavia, and even the home of single malt, Scotland. But at one point rye whiskey nearly disappeared from our shelves. So what happened?

What is rye whisky?

Rye is a cereal crop which is particularly common in northern and central Europe where it has long been used to make bread and used in distilling and brewing. Rye was brought to North America by colonists from Britain in the 17th century. 

This grain was utilised along with the native corn (maize) to make a uniquely American style of whiskey which evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries. These days rye whiskey in the US has to be made from a minimum of 51% rye with the rest usually made up of corn, wheat and/ or malted barley. Confusingly in Canada, the term ‘rye whisky’ could mean anything from 100% rye to just containing some rye. 

A still Michter's Distillery

Michter’s distillery today

The heyday of rye whisky

Along with bourbon, which would have been made predominantly from corn with some rye and other cereals, rye whiskey had its heyday in the years running up to Prohibition. Indeed most of the classic whiskey cocktails in books like 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock and the Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders’ Manual would have been made using rye rather than bourbon.

Whereas today the heartland of American whisky is in Kentucky and Tennessee, in the 19th century Pennsylvania was the centre of rye production with distilleries like Bombergers (later Michters). George Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon in Virginia would have made rye whiskey.

Why did rye whiskey disappear?

Disaster struck in 1919 when Prohibition came into force with the Volstead Act. Rye production stopped completely whereas a few bourbon distilleries soldiered on my producing whiskey for ‘medicinal’ purposes. When the act was repealed in 1933, the giant Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries resumed production but the smaller farm-based industry of Pennsylvania didn’t.

Whiskey takes time and much of the young spirit rushed to market in the 1930s did no favours to the reputation of domestic whisky. Meanwhile the Canadian and the Scotch industries that had profited so much from Prohibition had warehouses full of aged spirits. US production stopped during the Second World War so well into the ‘40s there was a shortage of good quality American whiskey. 

Rye eclipsed

The 1950s was a prosperous decade in American history. We tend to think of it as the Mad Men era of sharp suits, cocktails and lots and lots of smoking. But the fashionable drinks weren’t rye or bourbon, that was what the older generation drank, instead it was all about light Scotch blends like J&B and Cutty Sark or gin-based cocktails. Fast forward 20 years and America was switching to vodka or wine, both of which were taking off in a big way. Brown spirits looked a bit old fashioned.

While bourbon survived, though the market was in decline, rye nearly disappeared. It was difficult to make, rye produces a sticky mashbill which makes equipment hard to clean. The big bourbon brands would make a little rye every year for great uncle Jethro. According to the late great Dave Pickerell: “By 2006, there were only about 150,000 total 9-litre cases of rye whiskey sold in the United States, compared with 14.7 million cases of bourbon.”

Dave Pickerell

It’s the late great Dave Pickerell

The ryevival 

From this low point, rye whiskey bounced back impressively and Dave Pickerell played a big part in that. He was head distiller at Maker’s Mark but in 2008 decided to set up his own rye whiskey business which would become Whistlepig. As whiskey takes time to mature, this was initially based on acquiring aged rye from Alberta in Canada. This intensely-flavoured spirit would have been used to flavour commercial rye whiskies like Canadian Club. Pickerell wasn’t the only one, other independent brands began waking up to the sheer quality of mature North American whiskeys that could be bought from big distillers like Alberta Distillers or MGP distillery in Indiana which were previously used for blending.

After the vodka years, bartenders in the US and around the world were rediscovering the classics, cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned which would traditionally have been made with rye. It was the start of a full-blown ryevival (sorry!)

Old names like Rittenhouse, Michter’s and Sazerac were revived while small brands sprung up to make rye whiskey like High West in Utah, founded in 2006. In recent years many of the giant American whiskey brands like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Jack Daniel’s have allreleased rye expressions.  Meanwhile north of the border the giants of Canadian distilling Hiram Walker relaunched Lot 40, an all rye whisky which they had first brought to market in 1998. 

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

Heritage rye used by the Oxford Artisan Distillery

Rye around the world

But it wasn’t just in North America where rye mania took hold. As whisky became more popular in Europe, it was only natural to use local grains in production and, especially in Scandinavia, that meant rye. Distilleries like Zuidam in Holland, Kyro in Finland and Stauning in Denmark have become famous for their distinctive rye whiskies.

The burgeoning craft scene in Britain was also a fertile ground for rye with the Oxford Artisan Distillery making whisky from locally-grown heritage strains and The English Distillery in Norfolk also producing some great rye. The rye revival has even reached Scotland with Inchdairnie and Bruichladdich both producing rye whiskeys which by SWA laws have to be classed as single grain whiskies. Scotch rye, that’s something you could not have predicted 20 years ago. 

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The best rye whiskies from America and beyond

Michter’s Straight Rye

The bartenders favourite, this full-flavoured rye is brilliant in a Manhattan but it’s also mellow enough to sip neat and savour. 

Lot 40 Rye Whisky

Stunning value for money here from Canada. This is made from 100% rye and aged in new American oak. 

High West Double Rye

A blend of a young rye sourced from MGP and an older one distilled in Utah, there’s a lot going on in this high rye whiskey. 

RyeLaw Fife Single Grain

Made from 53% malted rye and 47% malted barley by Inchdairnie in Fife, this is a big, aromatic whisky bursting with orange, cinnamon, and ginger.

Oxford Artisan Easy Ryder

The rye used in this batch was a combination of heritage grains, harvested in 2017, and aged in a combination of casks including sweet moscatel.

Kyrö Malt Rye Whisky

This is made with 100% malted wholegrain rye at the distillery in Isokyrö, Finland, and boasts all the wonderful aromatic spiciness with a sweet edge to it.