Long before Bourbon, there was rye. In the early 19th century, thousands of small distilleries dotted Pennsylvania and Maryland—far outnumbering the Bourbon distilleries that had begun to appear in the South. Rye whiskey enjoyed huge demand right up until the advent of Prohibition in the 1920s. But in the decades after Repeal, its prospects faded as American palates turned to sweeter, smoother spirits. By the 1990s, rye whiskey was nearly non-existent.
Then came the mid-2000s, when the mixology movement swept across the country and sparked the whiskey boom. Distillers, whose rye output had become minimal at best, scrambled to ramp up production. The early years of this decade were plagued by shortages, and rye supplies have been struggling to come back into balance as sales continue to soar. Today, the rye category stands at nearly 1 million cases, according to Impact Databank. That’s still tiny compared to Bourbon’s 22.7 million cases, but it’s up exponentially from just 100,000 cases in 2010.
Craft distillers have helped spearhead this renaissance, but mainstream players have been rapidly rolling out new rye releases as well. Beam Suntory-owned Knob Creek, which debuted a Kentucky Straight rye whiskey ($41 a 750-ml.) in 2012, has since added limited-edition Cask Strength ($70) and Twice Barreled ($55) rye expressions. Knob Creek Cask Strength rye finished at No. 2 on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 Whiskies list in 2018.
The Booker’s and Basil Hayden’s brands from Beam Suntory have also expanded their rye repertoires in recent years. Booker’s came out with a limited release, 13-year-old, unfiltered rye ($300 a 750-ml.) in May 2016; at 68.1% abv, it targeted the whisk(e)y connoisseur. In April 2017, Basil Hayden’s launched a limited-release Kentucky Straight rye ($45), and followed with Dark Rye ($40)—a blend of Kentucky and Canadian ryes with a dash of California Port added—in October of the same year. Last July, Basil Hayden’s added the limited-release Two By Two rye ($45), another category-bending expression that blends 5- and 7-year-old Kentucky straight ryes with 6- and 13-year-old Kentucky straight Bourbons.
Other Kentucky distillers have also expanded in the rye space. “Bulleit Bourbon has always been among the highest-rye Bourbons on the market, so Bulleit Rye was a natural step for us and many of our consumers,” says Bulleit global brand director Ed Bello. “We see a lot of our rye consumers come into the category from Bourbon, and we continue to pace the rye category as a global leader.” Diageo-owned Bulleit added its rye whiskey ($28 a 750-ml.) back in 2011. The label rose 7.5% last year to 452,000 cases, making it the leading rye brand by volume in the U.S. Going forward, Bello notes that Bulleit Rye will take a larger share of the brand’s marketing efforts, with a focus on consumer and bartender education.
At Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits in Atlanta, president Tyler Sheron has seen first-hand the effects on rye when producers like Bulleit are in the game. “Most customers buy rye on the premise that they drink Bulleit Bourbon, so they’ll try Bulleit Rye,’” he says. “There are plenty of people with a connection to a specific Bourbon brand who will try that brand’s rye release.” Tower, which offers around 45 SKUs of rye whiskey, has given the category its own section in the store. Bulleit, Knob Creek, WhistlePig, and Rittenhouse are among the store’s most popular rye whiskey brands.
Recently, Brown-Forman’s Old Forester brand has innovated in the rye whiskey sphere as well. In February, the label debuted its first-ever rye, a Kentucky Straight rye ($23 a 750-ml.) that takes inspiration from Normandy Rye, a historic brand from Brown-Forman that was discontinued in 1940. The new expression has a mashbill of 65% rye, 20% malted barley, and 15% corn, and is a permanent addition to the Old Forester portfolio.
Bourbon icon Wild Turkey, owned by Campari America, has been in the rye business for generations, having first released its 101 Rye label in 1950. But its next rye release didn’t come along until 2007, with the launch of Russell’s Reserve 6-year-old rye. A 40.5% abv rye whiskey followed in 2012, alongside the news that 101 Rye was henceforth under allocation due to the sudden boom in popularity; even though Wild Turkey had continuously produced rye while many other distillers stopped during the years of low demand, its aged stocks were small. “The most interesting current aspect of rye is the care and attention given to the aging process, and drawing out complex, approachable flavors,” says Campari America director of dark spirits Sean Yelle.
Though rye expressions from mainstream distillers have played a key role in attracting new consumers, craft players have also been hugely significant in setting rye firmly apart from other whiskies. Park City, Utah-based High West Distillery, owned by Constellation Brands, was among the first to draw attention to the category, with two expressions—Rendezvous ($60 a 750-ml.) and Double ($35)—spearheading growth across the portfolio. Both have a very high rye content, blending a variety of aged whiskies with mashbills of 95% rye and 80% rye. Similarly, seasonal and limited-release rye expressions are also in the mix, including A Midwinter Night’s Dram ($99)—Rendezvous finished in French oak and Port barrels—and Yippee Ki-Yay ($65), which is a blend of straight ryes aged in new, charred American oak barrels and finished in French oak barrels that once held vermouth and Syrah.
High West built its name by using sourced whiskies, primarily from Lawrenceburg, Indiana distiller MGP Ingredients and Kentucky’s Barton 1792 Distillery. “High West has really made its mark as a blender,” says Constellation Brands vice president of marketing Carl Evans. “We’re proud of that reputation, and we’ve always been very transparent with our approach—consumers want to know the provenance of a brand and understand its backstory. They’re looking at whiskey as they would wine, in that they can see nuances of where it’s from.” Even though High West has since opened its own state-of-the-art distillery in Wanship, Utah, which has a production capacity of 200,000 cases, Evans notes that sourced distillates will likely always be a part of the brand’s formula. High West began using its own-make rye in Double and other expressions last year.
Acquired by Constellation for an estimated $160 million in 2016, High West has been perhaps the most successful craft player sourcing whiskies from MGP, but numerous other brands also turn to the Indiana company for their ryes, including Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits’ Redemption Rye and Baltimore, Maryland-based Sagamore Spirit. At Redemption, MGP whiskies have enabled the brand to release such extra-aged offerings as Redemption Barrel Proof 18-year-old Rye, retail priced at $400 a 750-ml. Deutsch Family vice president of spirits brand development Susan Kilgore says that Redemption is set to further differentiate itself by experimenting with new maturation methods. “We have some exciting innovations that use unique finishing techniques that we’ve yet to see explored by any other whiskey brand,” Kilgore says, noting that the whiskies will launch later this year. Redemption grew by 38% to 33,000 cases in 2017, according to Impact Databank.
Meanwhile, Sagamore Spirit is committed to eventually producing all its whiskey itself. To that end, the brand opened its own 22,000-square-foot distillery in Baltimore in April 2017, which is home to nine 6,500-gallon fermenters, an 8,000-gallon beer well, and a 6,000-gallon mash cooker, as well as a 24-inch column still from Vendome and a 250-gallon pot still. “It’ll be slow going, moving from sourced whiskies into 100% of our own liquid,” says Sagamore Spirit president Brian Treacy. “We’ll likely be using MGP for a while longer, but there’s an end game where eventually they’ll have no role at all.”
At the heart of this goal is Sagamore’s desire to advance Maryland-style rye in the U.S. “We want consumers to have an understanding of the regionality of rye whiskey, especially when it comes to Maryland style,” Treacy says. “Getting out there and telling that story will be a huge push for us this year.” He points to Maryland’s legacy as a historic rye region, noting that before Prohibition, there were distilleries all across the state. Sagamore Spirit currently offers two core expressions, Straight rye ($40 a 750-ml.) and Cask Strength rye ($74). With an approachable 41.5% abv, Treacy points to the former as the truest illustration of Maryland-style rye, whereas the 56.4% abv Cask Strength is targeted toward more seasoned whisk(e)y drinkers. The distillery has also been innovating with barrel aging, debuting such limited-release expressions as Double Oak rye ($60) and Port Finish rye ($70). More special releases are slated for arrival later this year.
Bardstown, Kentucky-based Heaven Hill Brands is also present in Maryland-style rye with its Pikesville label. First made in Maryland in the 1890s, Pikesville was the only Maryland rye to survive Prohibition and return to retail shelves after Repeal. The 55% abv offering was acquired by Heaven Hill in 1982 and moved from Maryland, and is now produced at the company’s Bernheim Distillery in Kentucky. With Pikesville currently on allocation due to skyrocketing demand, Heaven Hill’s group product director of the whiskey portfolio Susan Wahl notes that the company has been scaling production up significantly.
In addition to Pikesville, Heaven Hill owns Rittenhouse, a brand that showcases yet another U.S. region steeped in rye history: Pennsylvania. Known for their slightly sweet, robust flavors, Pennsylvania-style ryes—sometimes called Old Monongahela ryes—proliferated prior to Prohibition, with hundreds of distilleries in the state. Like Pikesville, Rittenhouse has just one core expression, a Bottled-in-Bond label retailing at $27 a 750-ml., but Wahl notes there may be line extensions in the future.
Both Pikesville and Rittenhouse have benefited from a growing appreciation of rye’s regionality. “The beauty of rye whiskey today is that there’s so much variety in how different brands are made, and a lot of differences in taste profiles,” Wahl says. “You’ve got brands from the traditional Bourbon distillers, which tend to be mellower as a result of much lower rye contents. Then there are the labels that get their whiskies from MGP, and those are often spicier and more fiery given their high rye content. And then there are brands like Rittenhouse, which was originally distilled in Pennsylvania and is a drier, more robust rye.” Looking ahead, Heaven Hill will continue emphasizing the heritage of Pikesville and Rittenhouse.
On the craft front, WhistlePig has long made a name for itself by blending and bottling ryes sourced from Canada’s Alberta Distillers, as well as MGP. Both distillates have high rye contents, giving them bold, spicy flavors. In fall 2015, however, WhistlePig opened its own distillery in Shoreham, Vermont, marking the start of its transition toward a locally produced brand. To that end, the distillery launched its Farmstock line in 2017, which includes Canadian and Indiana ryes, as well as rye made from grains grown on WhistlePig’s farm. “With Farmstock, we’re showcasing our farm production and expanding our concept of ‘triple terroir,’ in which we farm our own grain, distill with our own water, and use our own wood to age the product,” says WhistlePig CFO and COO Jeff Kozak. The WhistlePig portfolio saw volume growth of 40% in 2018, according to Kozak, who further noted that it outpaced the overall category by 25%. The brand’s lineup is led by its flagship 10-year-old rye: a Canadian whisky aged in new American oak casks with a Bourbon-barrel finish.
WhistlePig isn’t the only company that has built its brand on sourced rye whiskey and later debuted its own distillery. After years of bottling MGP-sourced rye that had a proprietary flavoring formula added, Templeton Rye opened a $35 million, 34,500-square-foot distillery, visitor center, and museum in Templeton, Iowa. Thus far, according to Templeton co-founder and CFO Keith Kerkhoff, the expansion has been a boon to the local community. “Each of the new sites has steady traffic; we created the campus to appeal to a large cross-section of people, from whisky aficionados to history buffs to individuals and families looking for a unique excursion,” he says. With the distillery, whose annual capacity is 500,000 proof gallons, Templeton aims to bring all aspects of production in-house.
Elsewhere, Diageo announced plans to spend $10 million on a visitor center at the Bulleit Distillery in Shelbyville, Kentucky, which opened in March 2017. Although the company sources rye from MGP, the visitor experience will include Bulleit Rye as part of the program. The 9,000-square-foot space, set to debut later this year, will host tastings and distillery tours and include a retail shop. Over the next five years, Diageo will invest around $1 million to promote the new center.
High West has invested heavily in tourism and retail as well, with its new distillery, restaurant, and saloon in Wanship; a saloon in Park City; and four High West-centric retail outlets throughout Utah. “We’re building unique experiences,” says Constellation’s Evans. “We had around 300,000 visitors to our Wanship facility last year, and we feel strongly that our physical presence drives people to the brand.”
And in Maryland, Sagamore Spirit’s Treacy is excited about the potential of spirits-focused tourism across the distillery’s home state. “We’re part of the Maryland Distillers Guild, and right now we’re working with them on what we can do as far as creating tourism here,” he says. “The more we can drive visitation here for all distilleries, the more we can share the story of Maryland rye whiskey.”
With so much innovation and expansion, the outlook for rye whiskey is bullish. “There’s such an expansiveness to rye today,” Beam Suntory’s Harris says. “You have Kentucky rye, Indiana-style rye, rye being made from small producers around the country—it’s everywhere. The more rye producers can show how the grain expresses itself and the variety of nuanced flavors that production techniques can create, the higher rye will climb.”