What is Rye Whisky?

Clearing Up the Confusion about Rye Whiskey

When the word whisky or whiskey is mentioned, the first thing that most people will think of will be Scotch whisky, and some people might mention that whiskey comes from Ireland as well. However, what must be explained is that Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are only two varieties of whiskey, and there exist many more types from all four corners of the world.

First of all, whiskey/whisky is a general term for a distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from fermented grain mash and typically aged in a wooden cask. The types of grain used in whisky production vary; corn, rye, malted rye, barley, malted barley and wheat can be used, and each grain variety makes a very unique style of whiskey.

The word whisky/whiskey itself has a very interesting history: originating from the Gaelic word for water uisce|uisge, it became anglicized. Furthermore, linguistics researchers have found that the Gaelic word in turn was a direct translation of the Latin word for distilled alcohol aqua vitae meaning “water of life”. In 1581, the word describing present-day whiskey was first published in English as “uskebeaghe”.

Therefore, as we can see, not all whiskeys are the same, nor will they present with the same flavours or characteristics; they only things they have in common are the preparation of ingredients, distillation, and aging in wooden barrels.

Rye whiskey, when spelled with an “e” between the “k” and “y” at the end of the word, generally refers to American rye whiskey, which, by law, must be distilled from at least 51% rye, but can also refer to Canadian whisky which can also be labelled as rye whisky without an “e” although it may not contain any rye at all. Canadian whisky, according to Canadian labelling laws, may advertise itself as a rye whisky as long as it possesses the general character, taste and smell of a rye whisky. However, for the sake of this article and for clarity, only American rye whiskey will be discussed.

American rye whiskey must be made from a mash of at least 51% rye, and other ingredients composing the mash are usually corn and malted barley. Distillation can be no stronger than 80% alcohol by volume, or 160 proof in the American alcoholic beverage industry terminology, and aging must be done in new oak barrels that have been charred. The maximum abv or alcohol by volume percentage of the whiskey when it goes in the barrels to age is 62.5 %. “Straight” rye whiskey is a rye whiskey that has been aged in a charred oak barrel for a minimum of two years.

Rye whiskey in the United States was very popular before the Prohibition era, especially in the country’s north eastern states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. However, most of the rye whiskey distilleries disappeared during Prohibition and only a handful survived the era. Old Overholt is one of the only American rye whiskey brands that is still around from back then; however a growing interest in American whiskeys is fuelling a revival with new brands and distillers trying their hand at distilling and marketing rye whiskey. Brands involved in the revival are Jim Beam, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Catoctin Creek, with a Mount Vernon distillery attempting to produce the same sort of rye whiskey that George Washington may have possibly made at his home during the era of America’s war of Independence.

Experts in different types of whiskeys compare the quality of American rye whiskey to that of an Islay scotch whiskey, meaning it is a very good variety indeed with highly unique characteristics. While bourbon, which is made of corn, is a bit sweeter and has a fuller body than rye whiskey, has long overtaken rye whiskey in the popularity game, connoisseurs claim that only rye whiskey can provide a fruity yet spicy flavour and is actually much more complex. While many bartenders will use bourbon for classic bar cocktails such as a whiskey sour or Manhattan, these recipes were originally intended to make drier, less sweet drinks and were specifically tailored for rye whiskey; cocktail aficionados will state that the bourbon substitution makes the beverages too sugary for their liking.

In fashionable circles, as mentioned previously, rye whiskey is making a comeback, and the flavour has been described as “dry, bold, and spicy, with greener, floral flavours from the grassier grain”. Further making those in the know happy is the fact that American rye whiskey ages exceptionally well, becoming smoother and spicier the older it gets. Brands that are getting more national and international attention are Sazerac Rye from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, Hudson Manhattan Rye from the Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery, and High West Double Rye! (there is an exclamation mark in the brand’s name apparently because it is that good) from the High West distillery.

More and more American rye whiskeys are coming on the market every day, and thus far, due to the tight regulations concerning labels, critics have not been able to find one that is bad. With options becoming more varied by the week and ranging in price from $25 to $55, trying a good rye whiskey is affordable and is a beverage which must be experienced. In fact, there are some who say that a person hasn’t really lived until they’ve had a proper Sazerac cocktail.

To make the legendary Sazerac cocktail, simply pour a little bit of Pernod in a chilled glass, making sure to pour the Pernod down the insides of the glass, thinly coating as much of the inner surface as possible. In a separate cocktail shaker, combine a teaspoon of sugar, a few dashes of bitters, and a drop or two of water. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then add plenty of ice and two ounces of Sazerac rye whiskey. Stir for about half a minute, until everything is well mixed, and then strain the liquid into the chilled glass containing the Pernod. Add a lemon twist, and enjoy the American rye whiskey life experience.

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