Steeped in old American history and heritage, rye is the country’s oldest and once most prevalent whiskeys. However, it would soon wane in popularity in favour of bourbon whiskey.
In this introductory guide, you will learn everything you need to know about rye whiskey:
- What Is Rye Whiskey?
- Is Rye Whiskey Bourbon? Rye Vs Bourbon
- What Does Rye Whiskey Taste Like?
- How To Drink Rye Whiskey
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Is Rye Whiskey Gluten-Free?
- Bourbon Health Benefits
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What Is Rye Whiskey?
Often and unfairly compared to bourbon, rye is arguably America’s oldest whiskey and was once its most popular alcoholic spirit. Like all American whiskey, it is produced according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s Federal Standard of Identity for Distilled Spirits.
In short, these regulations require any American-made whiskey to be distilled to a maximum of 80% ABV, aged in new charred oak barrels at no more than 62.5% ABV, and then bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
Incidentally, there is no minimum ageing period some whiskeys can be bottled and domestically sold after just a few months in an oak cask. Not all territories allow for this practice, though. For instance, the European Union requires any liquor bearing the name “whisk(e)y” to be aged for at least three years.
Aged whiskey may be labelled with age statements or with terms like “straight” and “bottled-in-bond”. You can learn more about these terms and what they mean with our introductory guide to American whiskey.
What sets rye apart is its eponymous main ingredient. All whiskey is produced from fermented grain called a “mash”, which may consist of corn, malted barley, wheat, and, of course, rye. The proportions of these used in the mash are referred to as the “bill”.
In order to qualify as rye whiskey, the mash bill consists of at least 51% rye. Meanwhile, the remaining 49% can be any grain of choice, including additional rye. Rye whiskey conforms to the same rules as bourbon, which must have a mash bill of 51% corn minimum.
What Is Rye Malt Whiskey?
Rye malt or malted rye whiskey is almost identical to regular rye whiskey except for one extra albeit vital step. On this occasion, the rye is malted beforehand, which involves soaking the grain in water so it cracks open and begins to germinate before halting the process by drying it.
In order to bear the “rye malt” name, the mash bill must feature 51% malted rye. However, regular rye can still be used in the remaining 49%, too. Rye is arguably spicier when malted and will add an even more distinctive peppery kick to the overall flavour.
America’s Oldest Whiskey?
As mentioned earlier, rye whiskey has a rich heritage. It was one of the earliest whiskeys produced by American settlers. Farmers fermented excess grain into beer and then distilled it so it would keep for long periods of time without spoiling.
Rye whiskey was prevalent throughout the northeastern states throughout the 18th and 19th centuries since these were the regions where the grain was cultivated. For this reason, it’s best associated with Pennsylvania and Maryland while Pittsburgh is arguably its spiritual home.
Since rye was quite sparse towards the west, other ingredients were used, which gave rise to other whiskeys like bourbon.
Unfortunately, Rye whiskey was severely affected by Prohibition and more so than bourbon, which recovered soon after it was repealed. Indeed, many Pennsylvanian brands didn’t survive it and some that did would even resurface in Kentucky after 1933.
Nevertheless, Rye has also enjoyed renewed albeit very recent interest thanks to bourbon’s renaissance. With American whiskey enthusiasts keen to discover alternatives to bourbon, rye has started to earn a reputation as a high-quality but low-cost underdog.
Finally, bear in mind that “rye” is often used to describe Canadian whisky. Yet, although Canadian whisky may use the name, it may also contain very little rye and even none at all.
Is Rye Whiskey Bourbon? Rye Whiskey Vs Bourbon
Given bourbon’s modern-day prevalence and rye’s virtual disappearance after Prohibition, it’s often asked whether they’re not actually one and the same. Indeed, the overall manufacturing process is similar but the ingredients are somewhat different.
Indeed, it is subject to the same regulations as all American whiskey in that it is distilled up to 80% ABV, aged in charred new oak barrels, and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.
However, where rye whiskey must contain a 51% minimum of rye in its mash, bourbon uses the same minimum quantity of corn instead. Since regulations require just over half of either one, it isn’t possible to produce a whiskey that can be recognised as both rye and bourbon.
To make matters more confusing, “high-rye” is also a type of bourbon, which is not officially recognised but a category growing in popularity. This bourbon, however, still requires a minimum of 51% of corn in the mash but it will also contain over 25% rye, too.
Where bourbon was a frontier whiskey, rye was historically produced in the northeastern states. Bourbon eventually adopted its Francophonic name in order to distinguish itself. Rye whiskey never developed its own name since it was so prevalent at the time and this didn’t particularly feel necessary.
Most people who develop an interest in rye whiskey are usually keen bourbon enthusiasts first. Indeed, bourbon can be considered the gateway drug to exploring other varieties of American whiskey and rye is the next logical step!
What Does Rye Whiskey Taste Like?
Rye whiskey is characterised by its overall spicy flavour profile that’s derived from its primary ingredient. It can also be described as quite peppery with herbal notes reminiscent of liquorice or anise. Similarly, its grain is somewhat more pronounced than other whiskey mash ingredients.
Since it follows the same overall production process as other American whiskeys, rye can share some properties with them. For instance, the low distillation strength ensures that the grain’s flavour is preserved.
Meanwhile, the use of freshly-charred new oak barrels is standard throughout all American whiskey and will yield similar results. Charring the wood opens its grain and allows the distillate to extract more flavours of caramel or vanilla.
Of course, not all rye whiskey tastes the same. Continuing with the above, producers can choose the extent to which the barrels are charred as well as how long the rye is aged in them.
Ageing rye whiskey will round out its flavours and produce additional complexity. It will help mellow the rye somewhat, but since it’s a very flavoursome grain, it will still retain a significant presence. Conversely, young rye whiskey will have a distinctive peppery grain flavour.
Similarly, rye can use any combination of grain in the remaining 49% of the mash bill. Producers can add more rye or various proportions of wheat, corn, and malted barley.
Each ingredient offers its own flavours. For instance, corn is known for the sweet and full-bodied properties that it provides bourbon. Meanwhile, wheat is subtle, light, and mildly sweet.
How To Drink Rye Whiskey
In our bourbon resources, we wrote extensively about how it should be drunk and outlined some essential grounds rules, which should be repeated here: There are none. Whiskey should be drunk only the way that you enjoy it.
The same applies to rye whiskey, too. After all, throughout most of their history, both beverages were very “working-class” produced out of practicality. Their gentrification is a relatively recent phenomenon. Therefore, any rules are hardly traditional and wouldn’t be constituted as an insult to your ancestors.
Rye whiskey can be enjoyed like any other in a shot, tumbler, or nosing glass. A favourite among enthusiasts is the Glencairn glass that features a tulip shape that allows for nosing the whiskey’s aromas but is practical enough to be handled like a tumbler.
Meanwhile, a shot glass is great for knocking it back if that’s the way you enjoy it but you can still take small sips if you prefer. Finally, a tumbler is more convenient for adding ice.
A Versatile Beverage
Rye whiskey can be enjoyed in a number of ways. Indeed, it’s a very versatile drink that can be served differently depending on your mood or the occasion.
For instance, rye whiskey on the rocks is popular for a reason. It’s refreshing and the melting ice dilutes the whiskey and makes it easier to drink. An arguable downside is that ice can overdilute your whiskey. Similarly, overchilling locks in the flavours and prevents the aromatic compounds from evaporating and revealing themselves.
While rye whiskey with ice is a pleasant and laid-back way to enjoy it, if your objective is to taste the rye whiskey at its full potential, consider trying it neat first. If you find it too strong, add a few drops of water. Water will open up the whiskey’s aromas while also reducing its alcohol bloom, which itself also masks the taste and smell.
When serving rye whiskey to friends or guests, we suggest giving them as much freedom as possible. First, allow them to choose their glassware. Pour a neat shot into the glass and hand it to them. Meanwhile, make available a bowl of ice with tongs as well as a small pitcher of water. This way, they can enjoy it exactly the way that they want without any pressure.
Finally, rye whiskey is an excellent cocktail ingredient and is often a vital ingredient for many classic concoctions. Check out some of the best rye whiskey cocktails with our guide!
Similar Drinks & Rye Whiskey Substitutes
Unsurprisingly, rye whiskey’s next of kin is bourbon. Although we said earlier that comparisons between the two were often unfair, they are also inevitable since they’re so closely related.
For this reason, it’s not uncommon for rye whiskey cocktail recipes like the Manhattan or the Sazerac to use bourbon instead of the original ingredient. Indeed, bourbon’s popularity made it a frequent substition.
Nevertheless, these are still best served with rye given that they were intended to benefit from the whiskey’s natural spiciness. Since bourbon is comparatively sweet, it tends to soften the flavour and lose out on complexity.
Since whiskey is a diverse family of spirits, there are plenty of other substitutions, though. Canadian whisky, if properly made with the main ingredient, will offer a very similar experience to American rye whiskey.
Otherwise, you may consider Scotch whiskey. Yet, Scotch is produced from malted barley and is aged in used bourbon barrels. Consequently, it will have a buttery and savoury flavour, but those from certain regions like Speyside can deliver some spiciness.
Meanwhile, Irish whiskey may be considered too light and floral to be considered as an appropriate substitute for rye’s bold and peppery profile.
Is Rye Whiskey Gluten-Free?
All whiskey, including rye, is generally regarded as gluten-free. While they may derive from grain that contains significant quantities of gluten, the distillation process usually removes all traces of the protein.
In most cases, people with gluten intolerance shouldn’t experience any ill effects. That being said, it is occasionally, albeit rarely, reported that people with more severe conditions like Celiac’s disease have had some complaints. These are usually mild but it isn’t unheard of.
Rye Whiskey Health Benefits
It was long believed that whiskey and other alcoholic spirits offered numerous health benefits. Indeed, whiskey was commonly retailed in pharmacies. In fact, it was helped brands like Brown-Forman’s Old Forester become so popular in the late 19th century.
However, today things are a little different, to say the least! One clear benefit is that if you’re going to be drinking anyway, straight rye whiskey contains no additives, including caramel colouring.
Furthermore, it’s relatively light and features few calories with only 70 in a single 1 Oz (30 ml) shot. Meanwhile, it doesn’t have any carbohydrates either.
As for practical health benefits, whiskey does feature quantities of ellagic acid, which help lower the risk of obesity by reducing bodily inflammation. Nevertheless, despite being historically used to treat high blood pressure, congestion, and even tuberculosis, it isn’t the healthiest beverage!
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