Centuries before the bourbon boom, rye whiskey was America's spirit.
Rye was what George Washington himself distilled at Mount Vernon, and if it weren't for Prohibition, when bootlegged Canadian whiskies took the place of rye, Americans may have never lost their penchant for the spicy and bold spirit.
Now, Americans' palate for rye whiskey—which must be made from at least 51 percent rye grain—is decidedly restored. Sales volumes rose by more than 1,000 percent between 2009 and 2018, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. In 2018, 1.1 billion cases of rye were sold.
What accounts for the resurgence in popularity? Ask experts, and one man's name comes up again and again: Dave Pickerell.
The New York Times dubbed Pickerell, who died of heart failure last November at 62, a "master of whiskey and rye." The paper also noted his nickname: the Johnny Appleseed of American whiskey. Pickerell, a West Point graduate and chemical engineer, spent 14 years at Maker's Mark before leaving to consult with craft distilleries.
When Mount Vernon embarked on a mission to produce rye whiskey at the reconstructed distillery that George Washington had built there 200 years earlier, leaders at the historic landmark sought out Pickerell as an expert, along with other master distillers like Chris Morris of Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel's and Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey.
"Over the course of nearly a decade, Dave became a valued part of many other projects at our distillery, including the production of apple and peach brandy, Scotch, and our aged rye whiskeys. Each year, Dave continued to teach and assist in the production of George Washington rye whiskey, single malt whisky, and brandies," the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which maintains the historic landmark, said in a statement after Pickerell's death.
After reestablishing the distillery at Mount Vernon, Pickerell turned his attention to a start-up rye operation based on a farm in Shoreham, Vermont. WhistlePig hired Pickerell as its master distiller in 2009.
"Dad was a history buff, and he loved that rye was America's spirit earlier in American history," Dave's son, Micah Pickerell, told me. "He didn't like that our national whiskey was all but gone from the market [at the time]. He saw it as a big opportunity in the market for growth."
"One of the really big ideas that he wanted to bring to market was really good rye whiskey, and WhistlePig was his baby in that regard," Micah said. "It was really well received in the market right from the beginning, and that was vindication for him."
WhistlePig's CEO, Jeff Kozak, echoed that sentiment, adding that with Dave as master distiller, WhistlePig was able to blur the categories of traditional rye whiskey.
"Nobody had ever finished rye whiskey in exotic barrels, and Dave's short finishing technique was what allowed all the complexity of Sauternes, Armagnac, Calvados to shine through but not over power rye's inherent spiciness and richness in WhistlePig's Boss Hog and Old World Series," Kozak said.
Earlier this year, WhistlePig released PiggyBack, the last whiskey on which Pickerell ever worked. The six-year-old whiskey is made using rye grain from WhistlePig's Vermont farm, where it is also distilled and aged in Vermont white oak barrels.
In addition to WhistlePig's latest release, larger whiskey makers launched ryes this year. Bulleit introduced a 12-year-old rye and Basil Hayden’s debuted a Caribbean Reserve Rye. Dan McKee, who was recently promoted to master distiller at Michter's, announced that his first release would be a 10-year-old single-barrel rye whiskey. The rye craze seems to be here to stay.
The Best Bottles to Try
What Critics Are Saying
"Rye whiskey, after almost going extinct, has made one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of American spirits in the last 15 years. Once, there were two, maybe three rye brands on the shelf. And they weren’t very good. The big distillers devoted a single day a year to distilling rye, it was so forgotten a commodity. Now, the numbers of brands and expressions almost competes with bourbon, and it commands just as much respect. Through the working of enterprising and educating bartender and craft distillers, the spirit has shaken off its bottom-shelf reputation and re-established itself as what it always was, a great American whiskey. Discerning drinkers, young and old, call for it, and know it leads to a superlative Manhattan or Old Fashioned."—Robert Simonson, author of The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore and The Martini Cocktail: A Meditation on the World's Greatest Drink, with Recipes, out this September from Ten Speed Press.
"I credit the rise in interest in cocktails made with rye, both classics and newer drinks—that spice-forward, lean elegance rye has really makes drinks shine. Usually rye is just part of the mix—obviously a whiskey needs to be made with at least 51 percent rye to be called rye. But I'm noticing that the rye portion of mash bills is edging higher and higher lately, including quite a few 100-percent rye whiskey bottlings."—Kara Newman, sprits editor of Wine Enthusiast and author of (most recently) Nightcap: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening
How to Drink It
Sipping the whiskey neat or with an ice cube is an option, especially if you like the peppery flavor for which rye is known. If you're more of a cocktail person, classics like the Manhattan, Boulevardier, Vieux Carré, and Sazerac all call for rye whiskey. It can fit into an Old Fashioned recipe, too, depending on the imbiber's preference for a sweeter version (made with bourbon) or a spicier variety (made with rye).
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