Though most of our clients look to us primarily for rare wines, many are choosing to expand their collection to fine spirits as well. With the current interest in collectable spirits at an all-time high, we would like to continue the conversation that we started about American Whiskies and turn the spotlight toward rye whiskey. Because American Whiskey is a relatively new category of collectables for many of our clients, we offer this as a primer for those of you who are interested in exploring something new.
When most people think of American whiskey the first things – often the only things – that come to mind are Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey (Jack Daniels.) Often overlooked is Rye whiskey which is a true injustice.
- 51% of the grain in the mash bill must be rye (Bourbon must be 51% corn). In most cases the percentage of rye is much higher than required by law
- Must be distilled at less than 160 proof, and barreled at no more than 125 proof
- Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels (like Bourbon)
One thing to keep in mind is that these laws apply only to American Rye Whiskey. Though many people associate Canadian whiskey with rye, there are actually no laws to denote how much rye should be used in the mash. Some popular brands of Canadian rye whisky can have a corn to rye ratio of up to 9:1.
Some important details to look for on the label:
- ‘Straight rye whiskey’ is defined as rye that has been aged for two or more years in barrel. Rye aged for 2-4 years must be bottled with an age statement. If aged for more than 4 years, no such indication is required.
- Occasionally you will find bottles designated ‘bottled in bond’. Though this is more commonly found on Bourbon, BIB requires that the whiskey be a product from one distillation season and one distiller at one distillery. It must age for a minimum of 4 years in a federally bonded warehouse and be bottled at 100 proof. Rittenhouse and E.H. Taylor are two examples of BIB rye.
Rye whiskey through the years:
- The Northeastern U.S., particularly Pennsylvania and Maryland, was the historical the seat of rye production. The enormous MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana is now where the majority of rye is made.
- George Washington distilled his own rye-his Mount Vernon distillery was the nation’s largest whiskey distillery at the time of his death in 1799. You can see a classic recipe, the likes of what Washington would have used, here.
- Though there are hundreds of brands of Rye Whiskey on the market, the majority of the actual whiskey comes from only a handful of distilleries. Any attempt to untangle the thread that runs from distiller to bottler to label would require more space than this post allows; but, it can be noted that the aforementioned MGP in Indiana distilled the lion’s share of the rye currently on the market, while the major Kentucky distillers and even a few Canadian distilleries account for majority of the balance (Rye, unlike Bourbon, can be distilled outside of the United States). Read more about the major whiskey distillers in the U.S. here.
What to buy:
First-rate ryes can more than rival the best Bourbons in terms of bold, complex flavors and structure. Unlike bourbon many ryes have a dry, black pepper element that compliments the vanillin oak flavors and makes them stand out among other wood aged whiskies. Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of rye in the mash bill, the dryer and spicier the resulting whiskey. If you like bourbon but are sometimes put off by the sweet, caramel flavors then rye may be a good alternative for you.
Excellent examples of Rye can be found at just about any price point but the best, including Willet Reserve and the legendary Black Maple Hill 23 year old can be priced in the thousands of dollars per bottle and have become very hard to find. One of the most pleasant surprises of 2014 Auction year was the remarkable performance of American whiskies. Some of the best results we have seen for any collectible category were achieved for Bourbons and Ryes last year. In December, two bottles of the 23 year old Rathskeller rye bottled for the Seelbach hotel in Louisville sold for over $5000. And in June, a Prohibition era case of Dougherty’s Rye Whiskey pints sold for over $19,000.
Not ready to spend weeks searching and thousands of dollars to acquire your first bottle of rye? Not to worry, there are still several excellent options that are accessible and affordable. In fact, rye whiskies are among the best values in the spirits world. Whether using it as a foundation for your cocktails (i.e. a Sazerac), or sipping it neat, for your first foray into the world of rye I would suggest Rittenhouse (100 proof, 51% rye) produced by Heaven Hill distilleries in Kentucky. Rittenhouse, named for Philadephia’s Rittenhouse Square as homage to rye whiskey’s Pennsylvania roots, has a classic spicy nose and remarkable power and richness considering the price. There is plenty of citrus and oak here with just a hint of black pepper. Try adding just a drop of water to take a little of the edge off and open up the bouquet and flavors. Another great option is George Dickel (90 proof, 95% rye), which is distilled at MGP in Indiana like so many other rye brands. The difference here is before it is bottled it is chilled and charcoal filtered which removed some of the harsh flavors leaving supple and well integrated crème brulee, dark fruit and spice. For a unique twist on Rye, High West’s A Midwinter Nights Dram is a blend of 6 year and 16 year old rye whiskeys that they finish aging in port and French oak barrels. Think rye high notes with sweet(er) port like accents-a great whiskey to savor on a cold winter night!