The Fall and Rise of Rye

It didn’t take too long to dig deep enough into the history of whiskey before I came across the lost and almost forgotten rye. If someone is to list the sad stories found within whiskey’s past, certainly would be amongst those tales.

While bourbon gets all of the press when it comes to American Whiskey, and is often regarded as American Whiskey, the truth is a little more complicated than that. The Scots and the Irish who immigrated to the colonies in the mid 1700′s ended up in Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas first, long before anyone from the British Isles ever set foot into what is now Kentucky. With these immigrants was brought the skill of distilling fermented mash made from grains – not any specific grains mind you, but from any grains that were available. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, that primarily meant rye.

The marketplace easily accommodated both styles. Order a whiskey in a saloon in the late 1800′s and one would just as likely get a rye whiskey as they would get a bourbon. Of course, one could also likely get an un-aged whiskey colored with tobacco juice, as there was very little in the way of regulations, especially in the west where the law had yet to catch up with the settlers. Ask for a rye, and one would likely get a rye. Ask for a Kentucky whiskey or a bourbon, and one would get a corn whiskey. Ask for a whiskey and one would get what ever cost the cheapest.

As whiskey in America evolved from a farmer’s product to an industrialized one, the traditions of local areas where whiskey companies grew took hold. So while the bourbon industry began using corn as the primary grain, the distilleries of Pennsylvania and Maryland kept using rye for the most part. Depending upon the distillery, some would use the one grain only, others would use a combination of grains within their mash.

Neither region could claim hold on the majority of the American Whiskey market, but both, for the most part, were profitable. By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, various whiskey companies throughout the land were being bought and sold by the larger companies. Dozens of distilleries peppered the Pittsburgh and Baltimore areas.

One of those brands was Old Overholt, a rye still on the market today. This rye started out in Western Pennsylvania, but over time has ended up in the hands of the James B. Beam Distilling Co. Yes, that James Beam. It’s no longer distilled in Pennsylvania, but instead in Kentucky. Old Overholt is the last whiskey on the market that has ties to my childhood home.

So what killed the distilleries of Western Pennsylvania and Maryland? For the most part, it was Prohibition, though in some cases larger companies came in and bought out some of the distilleries and let them founder prior to 1920. And unlike northern Kentucky, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore had established industries aside from distilling that could somewhat compensate for the loss of jobs. When Prohibition was repealed, there simply was little need or interest in starting up the distilleries that had been closed, especially when several companies had decided to invest in the Bardstown, Kentucky area.

Once the investment dollars went to Kentucky, the ryes took a back seat to Kentucky tradition. True ryes started to fall by the wayside. Those Americans who still had a taste for ryes looked to Canada for their whiskeys, even though most Canadian “Ryes” are simply corn whiskey with a small percentage of rye thrown into the mash. True ryes (those who’s mashes are made from at least 51% rye) became an afterthought.

It has only been in the last 5 years that the demand for true ryes has been on the increase. As the artisanal revolution has migrated from the beer industry into the spirits industry, old and “authentic” recipes have become desired. People have started demanding authentic spirits in the older recipes. When a cocktail asks for a jigger of rye, no longer is “Canadian Club” enough to do the trick.

This has caught the whiskey industry by surprise, and the larger companies have been slow to react.(Keep in mind that the slowness of the industry is by design, due in larger part to aging requirements of their products. They have the guess what the marketplace will look like several years in the future, and this is a fairly inexact science).

This brings me to my own idol in the food industry, Fritz Maytag. His Old Potrero (both 18th century and 19th century) ryes recreate the older recipes that had been forgotten and /or discarded. Other companies have been moving to add true ryes to their repertoire as well. Ryes…true ryes…are making a comeback.

As I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, I am delighted by these turn of events. I feel an odd connection to ryes, even the pseudo-ryes, than I do with bourbons. Now if we could get a whiskey distillery opened in the Pittsburgh area, I’d feel even better.