What is American Rye Whiskey?
An American Rye Whiskey is whiskey made anywhere in the United States. It must be made following a strict set of regulations as set forth in the Spirits Act of 1964. These regulations are very similar to the regulations set for bourbon.
The rules set forth by the Spirits Act of 1964 are as follows:
- A Rye Whiskey may be made anywhere in the United States
- Rye must be made from a mashbill comprised of at least 51% rye with the remaining 49% comprised of any combination of barley, wheat, and/or rye. It is not uncommon the find Rye whiskies at 95-100% rye.
- Rye cannot be distilled beyond 160-proof.
- Rye must be stored in new, charred oak barrels.
Rye must enter the oak barrel for aging at no more than 62.5% abv (125-proof).
Rye must be bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (80-proof).
After Rye Whiskey has been distilled (selectively evaporated) to separate the spirits from the mash, no colors or flavors may be added.
Keep in mind that these heavy regulations are a big reason for American Rye having the most consistent quality of any Rye Whiskey in the world.
What does Rye taste like?
There has been a definite upswing in the last 5 years of this amazingly complex yet unfamiliar spirit. If made correctly, American Rye should be big, bold, and spicy. It's spicier and drier than bourbon, which is sweeter and full-bodied. Rye is known for having intense tastes that change and develop on the palate. For me, a good Rye Whiskey takes longer to drink, making it well suited for long, authentic, bonding conversations.
How do I know which Rye Whiskey is better than others?
What is or is not better is always a matter of personal preference. However, a definite bump in quality is Straight Rye Whiskey. Straight Rye must follow all of the regulations that Rye does, but with a couple of extra rules to follow. Straight Rye must be aged for a minimum of 2 years, and if aged less than 4 years, it must have a precise age statement on the bottle. This means that all Straight Rye Whiskey bottles that do not have an age-statement on the label are at least 4 years old.
Who makes extraordinary Rye?
One of our favorite examples of Straight Rye Whiskey at its highest expression is Willett Family Estate Straight Rye Whiskey. This particular Rye is an example of what we like to call "unicorn" bottles, which are so super allocated and made in such minute quantities that they are damn near impossible to find, to say the least. As far as the Willett Exploratory Cask Whiskey goes...You'll have better luck finding an actual unicorn. And we happen to have some.
Why oak aging?
Like bourbon, the rules on rye require the use of new charred-oak barrels. This allows the barrel to impart more of its own flavors of oak, caramel, and vanilla into the whiskey than you get with Scotch, which usually uses second-hand bourbon or sherry barrels. The Oak used to make whiskey barrels have three basic effects on the distillate.
1.It's used to add desirable elements to the aroma, taste, and appearance of the whiskey like color, vanillin (chemical in oak that contributes vanilla flavor to wines and spirits), and wood sugars among others.
2.It's also used to remove undesirable elements like Sulphur compounds and harness from immaturity .
3.It adds preservative compounds that are naturally occurring in wood to protect whiskey and give it longevity.
Where are the best ryes from?
Debates about who makes the best Rye Whiskey or where the best Rye comes from have caused more than just a handful of bar fights around the country.
The truth is, there are fantastic distilleries and micro-distilleries all over the United States.
Here are some outstanding ones :
Willett in Kentucky
HighWest in Utah
Michter's in Kentucky
WhistlePig in Vermont
Pikesville in Kentucky
I recommend trying bottles from each of these places if you are a rye fan, or want to be one.