A beginners guide to Rye Whiskey

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February 16, 2013 by Woodystock

Rye has gotten a bad rap over the years, in a world of scotch, bourbon and other so-called ultra premiums, Rye has been subjected to the demeaning moniker of the “poor mans whiskey” or “grandpa whiskey”.  Although Rye whiskey was at the height of its popularity prior to and during the unpleasantness known as prohibition, following the repeal of prohibition in 1933 Rye whiskeys popularity dropped substantially.

Those who had drunk elicit beverages during prohibition were generally subjected to the poorer quality of spirits.  Clandestinely distilled brandies, gins and rums smuggled in from the Caribbean.  But for the most part, the bootleg scene was dominated by whiskey, rye whiskey.  Beer and wine had all but been abandoned by bootleggers during this time, the economic yield of a barrel of crap whiskey far surpassed that of a barrel of beer.  Some beer made its way across the border from Canada during the early years before Canada later put an end to this through their own prohibitions.

After the repeal of Prohibition, drinkers wanted to enjoy premium products and again enjoy beer.  Whiskey during prohibition came from two places, Canada and the American South.  The rye which came from Canada was of decent quality but expensive and often controlled through organized crime figures like Al Capone.  Whiskey from the south, however, was more affordable and abundant but was crude and essentially moonshine.  The three-year barrel aging processes that is now standard and regulated, was at the time little more than a transportation vessel.  The whiskey was aged for as long it took to get from the moonshiners to the drinkers.  Following repeal, quality standards grew and rye remained an important cocktail ingredient but lost its clandestine monopoly in the face of russian vodkas, french brandies and scotch and irish whiskeys.  Rye was then limited mostly to Canada where it grew into a national product and in the south where it evolved into a product of their own.

Rye has seen a resurgance in popularity in recent years as a combination of the classic cocktail and whiskey craze brought on by shows like boardwalk empire and Mad Men.  This paired with the growing popularity in premium whiskeys is definetly helping rye get rid of its unpleasant repuation.

Canadian Rye Whiskey

There is no legal distinction of what makes a rye whiskey in Canada.  The name has stuck mainly for historical reasons, “Canadian Rye whiskey” “rye Whiskey” or “Canadian Whiskey” are often distinctions without any distinction, other than that a Canadian whiskey must be made in Canada.

The only major Canadian whiskey available that uses 100% rye grains as the base for their whiskey is Alberta Premium.  Most others use a combination of rye, corn and barley.

Canadian Whiskey is a robust and national venture that deserves more explanation and respect than I have to give in this article.  Its place in history and culture requires more time and I will eventually get to it.

Notable brands of Canadian Whiskey;  Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Wisers deluxe, Forty Creek.

American Rye.

American Rye Whiskey is by far more regulated than its Canadian counterpart, it must be made of a mash that is at minimum 51% rye grain and must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.  Since prohibition, rye production has moved to the north-eastern states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In 2007, a reconstructed version of George Washington’s private distillery was re-erected at its original location at Mount Vernon, Virgina.  At Washington’s private plantation residence.  The distillery produces a rye whiskey among George Washington personal whiskey recipes.

notable brands of American Rye whiskey; Old Overholt, Jim Beam Rye, Wild Turkey Rye.  I may be a little off on these, as I am a Canadian I drink Canadian Whiskey.  American Whiskey is generally associated with bourbon and not rye.

Drinking/serving notes.

Rye is usually served and consumed as a component in cocktails and mixed drinks.  As a grain spirit there are few flavours that cannot accent or accompany rye whiskey.  Most carbonated sodas go well with rye; coke/Pepsi, seven up, ginger ale, soda water.  There is a plethora of classic cocktails that feature rye whiskey, or enjoy it neat, pressed or on the rocks.

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