A little over a decade ago something was afoot. First a handful of expressive rye whiskeys—like Old Potrero and Sazerac—turned up. Then a new breed of high-profile bartenders intent on reviving old recipes found the spicy-edged spirit, and we had a fad on our hands. But now there’s no dismissing those early rye stirrings as a mere craze. Every major Bourbon distiller has weighed in with something rye forward (some with several choices) and the spirit is the darling whiskey of the micro-distillery movement.
The latest salvo in the revolution has been a string of straight rye whiskeys made as line extensions to brand names born as Bourbon. (Straight ryes are made under the same strict rules as Bourbon, but use a preponderance of rye grain instead of a corn-rich recipe.) Both Knob Creek and Bulleit, famous as Bourbons, have issued ryes under the same label. The former is a complex journey of flavors, not as old as the first Knob, but just as vibrant. The latter, which makes a particularly rye-rich Bourbon, ramped up that grain to 95 percent for Bulleit Rye, but sings with finesse. Wild Turkey, already masterful with its 101-proof rye version, has debuted an 81-proof version meant for mixing—and it is quite laudable, but please, Turkey, don’t take away 101. On a smaller scale Woodford Reserve (Rare Rye Selection) weighed in with two types last year, one a straight, the other aged in used barrels. Like most of its special releases, they’re liquid lessons.
Smaller labels have made bold statements. Van Winkle Family, an original rye revivalist, is the best example, but also the hardest to find. Templeton, from Iowa, burst on the scene with a starring role on TV’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Utah’s High West makes an interesting mix of Bourbon and rye styled as Bourye. Michter’s 25-year-old single barrel is downright explosive. Canada has proven a lively source for rye for both Jefferson’s Rye (another delightful spice missile) and Whistle Pig (a 10-year-old that’s a complex rapprochement between spice and vanilla). Hudson Manhattan Rye holds the title of least-likely whiskey provenance: 100 miles from New York City.
However, one of the great joys of rye is the value end of the market. Heaven Hill with its Rittenhouse brand has long championed the category with solid affordable whisky (its 21- and 23-year-old version notwithstanding). Old Overholt (a Jim Beam product, as is Knob Creek) is another great example of a very fair deal. Its our hope that option will stay available, even as its makers explore the stratosphere of what rye can be.