When it comes to the question of what is rye whiskey, the answer can get complex depending on how deeply you dive in. If it’s Canadian, it might not have any rye in it at all. But zoom out, and the answer to the question is rather simple.
And even if you don’t know what rye whiskey is exactly, that won’t stop you from enjoying a glass of the stuff or a nice cocktail made with it.
What Is Rye Whiskey?
At its most basic, rye whiskey is a distillation made from a mash, at least 51 percent of which is rye grain. Legend has it that George Washington used a mash for his rye whiskey that was 60 percent rye).
Other mash ingredients usually include barley and corn, but if the rye percentage is less than 51, it’s not rye whiskey. Some rye whiskies use malted barley, but many distillers avoid using it in significant amounts.
Further, it must be aged in new charred oak barrels. While some distillers manufacture specialty batches aged in used barrels for this or that taste alteration, the oak barrels must be new for rye whiskey.
Defining Rye Whiskey
Like everything else people enjoy, many subgenres of rye whiskey have sprung up. American rye whiskey is much like bourbon, though its mash must have that 51 percent rye grain.
There’s the barrel requirement, too, and it must be no higher than 160 proof. Part of the control for that proof is that the rye can’t be more than 125 proof when it goes into those charred oak barrels. And you’re looking at a minimum of 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
Within the category of American rye whiskey, we have three main varieties:
- Indiana rye
- Maryland-style rye
- Pennsylvania-style rye
Because of obscure bottling regulations in Canada (relative to those in the United States), Canadian rye whiskey may not contain any rye in its mash.
It’s still an alcoholic beverage, but why Canadian whisky has “rye” in its name and not in its mash is a matter for another day. Elsewhere, malted rye is popular in Germany, while Kilbeggan Distillery introduced the first Irish whiskey with rye in 2018.
A Brief History of Rye Whiskey
The first rye whiskey came from Pennsylvania around the middle of the 18th Century. Farmers made it from rye and corn, and it predated bourbon. However, as the century drew to a close, bourbon had surpassed rye whiskies in popularity.
But not in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh distilleries cranked the stuff out as if the whole world was drinking it. Statistically, it may have seemed that way: 100 years before Prohibition, distillers were brewing enough rye whiskey in Alleghany County alone for every person in the US to have a half barrel.
Looming over that, though, came Prohibition in the early 20th Century, which devastated the whiskey business (the legitimate ones, anyway).
Rye whiskies took almost a century to recover their popularity as millennials and Gen Z discovered the stuff in earnest, and it’s once again a popular spirit.
How Is Rye Whiskey Made?
While you may be familiar with the distillery made from medical equipment that the characters in “M*A*S*H*” used to brew their own wartime hooch, rye whiskey production is a bit more complicated than that classic TV show might have made it seem.
You can’t have any kind of whiskey without a mash, and to get that, you have to mill your grains. After being harvested, the barley (including malted barley for malted varieties), corn, and, most importantly, rye grains must be sifted for debris.
When the future mash mix is completely debris-free, distillers mill it, which involves grinding the grains into grist, a fine powder. It’s usually ground twice to reach the desired fineness.
The grist goes into room-temperature water, which is then heated. Distillers must not bring the water to a boil. The idea is for the heat to release enzymes in the grains, and boiling water would render them inert.
Once those enzymes activate, they begin interacting with the starch present in the grains and breaking them down. This creates sugar. But only if the heat is well managed. Again, it can’t boil, but it must also not be allowed to cool too quickly.
When the mash has cooked properly, some leftover mash from previous rye whiskey batches gets added.
Once the grains have had their starches converted into sugar, it’s time to turn that sugar into alcohol. We do this via fermentation.
After returning the mash mixture to room temperature, the distiller adds yeast, a living organism that feeds on that sugar. The by-products of the yeast eating those sugars include carbon dioxide and ethanol—and that’s the alcohol.
The yeast and mash mixture go into fermentation barrels, where they stay for at least a week. Leaving the solution in the barrels longer doesn’t up the alcohol content.
Once the sugars are all gone, the yeast can’t make more alcohol. It has, at that time, helped create a liquor called a wash that’s about 10 percent ABV.
After fermentation, there’s still a ways to go before you can put it in a bottle and enjoy it. Distillation is next, a process during which heat assists in pulling out any impurities from the wash.
Some yeast may remain, as may some other chemical compounds created by fermentation that don’t belong in a bottle of rye whiskey. The heat transforms the liquid into vapor, which gets collected and distilled again.
Each vapor collection raises the alcoholic content through a process similar to reducing a sauce on the stove. To be considered rye whiskey, it can’t be distilled to an ABV of 80 percent or 160 proof.
Distillation produces new whiskey, which is then combined with water in preparation for the aging process. The whiskey/water mix goes into new, charred barrels made from white oak where it stays for a minimum of two years, although four years is more of a default setting.
In fact, if a rye whiskey comes out of the barrels any time before the four-year mark, its age must be stated on the label. If no age indicator appears, the whiskey in the bottle is four years old.
The longer a rye whiskey ages, the more vibrant its flavors. So, a 15-year-old rye whiskey will have a more mature, full-bodied flavor (with hints of vanilla you won’t get in younger batches) than a four-year-old one. It will also cost a bit more.
What Does Rye Whiskey Taste Like?
If you like bourbon, you probably at least have a taste for rye, though a straight rye whiskey isn’t as sweet. That may lead some to consider it harsher than bourbon. Expect smoky flavors and oak, as well, coming from the barrels.
Different mashes will yield varying flavors, but most rye whiskeys have at least a hint of pepper in their flavorings, and they’ll seem spicier than the sweeter stuff that is bourbon.
Malted rye uses varying amounts of malted barley, with several brands typically having a nutty or smoked flavor.
How To Drink Rye Whiskey
There’s no wrong way to drink rye whiskeys. Still, it may work best as a straight rye whiskey. Ideally, a glass of room-temperature rye whiskey will provide the fullest flavor experience, but that doesn’t mean having it over a rock or two is a crime.
Some whiskey drinkers prefer the somewhat dulled taste of a rye whiskey that’s been at least a little diluted by a melting ice cube.
After all, colder whiskey tends to go down a little more smoothly. Full disclosure, though—the cooler a whiskey is, the more subdued its flavors are.
You may also adjust how you drink your rye whiskey depending on the kind you have.
- Enjoy Canadian rye whiskey neat.
- If you’re mixing drinks, Maryland rye whiskey serves admirably, as does Pennsylvania style.
- Indiana rye whiskey is at its best when it’s served neat. If you need to subdue the flavor, add a splash of water, but not ice.
- Pennsylvania-style rye whiskey is the most versatile, as it works well for sipping neat or over rocks, and it stands up in cocktails very well.
- Malt rye whiskey, which usually contains malted barley, goes well in several cocktails.
Famous Rye Whiskey Brands
With the rise of microbreweries, there are many rye whiskey brands. Some have acquitted themselves well and earned a reputation as fine examples of the liquid.
Wild Turkey/Russell’s Reserve
Wild Turkey is an iconic distillery dating back to early 19th Century Kentucky. The brand makes Kentucky bourbon but has also created Russell’s Reserve, its take on rye whiskey.
Expect hints of leather and vanilla in both the aromas and flavors of a glass of Russell’s Reserve, most of which is aged to six years. The mash is 51 percent rye, 37 percent corn, and 12 percent barley.
The Sazerac started as a New Orleans cocktail containing rye whiskey and absinthe as its premiere ingredients. Eventually, Sazerac rye became a New Orleans staple to the point where making a sazerac without Sazerac rye would be unthinkable.
It’s a fairly fruity whiskey, though the pepper and spiciness do not get overshadowed. You’ll also taste and smell some caramel in there. Sazerac comes in four-year and 18-year varieties.
Founded in 1810 in Pennsylvania, Old Overholt is the OG of rye whiskey. Currently part of the Jim Beam liquor universe, it survived Prohibition through political connections that allowed the company to sell so-called medicinal whiskey— a holy grail achievement for distilleries at the time.
A bottle these days is aged three years. While its mash is a mystery, it’s a rye whiskey, so it contains at least 51 percent rye. Expect peppery fruitiness.
Rye Whiskey Cocktails
- Manhattan. Lots of people think of this as a bourbon drink, but in the 1880s, rye was the first choice, coupled with sweet vermouth and a cherry or two.
- Rock and Rye. The rock in this one is rock candy which, coupled with rye whiskey, can create some huge varieties in flavors.
- Sazerac. As with a Hurricane, you can’t go to New Orleans and not have a Sazerac: sugar, bitters, anise, and rye.
- Vieux Carre. Combining cognac, bitters, Bénédictine, and sweet vermouth with rye whiskey, this is something of an advanced drink— for mixologists and drinkers alike.
- Ward Eight. Using citrus juices, the Ward Eight works with bourbon, but the stronger flavors of rye whiskey work better.
- Whiskey Daisy. Simple syrup, soda, and orange liquor complement the rye in this one.
Frequently Asked Questions
So much information, so many questions. Right? Here are some of the most common.
How is bourbon different from rye whiskey?
The difference is in the mash. Bourbon whiskey uses a mash that contains some or all of barley, wheat, rye, and corn. Unless the rye portion constitutes 51 percent of the mash, the result is bourbon, a sweeter liquor than rye.
Is rye whiskey gluten-free?
Even though it’s made with grains that are decidedly not gluten-free, distilled rye whiskey is. However, as some makers add flavors, those additives might not be gluten-free.
Why is Canadian whiskey known as rye whiskey?
Canadian whiskies do it differently to American rye whisky. In the old days, Canadian imbibers had wheat-based whiskey in their flasks.
They began adding small amounts of rye to the mash for a taste they found superior, and “rye” became shorthand for whiskey.
These days, “rye” is just shorthand for Canadian whiskey, no matter what’s in the mash.
Was George Washington really the largest producer of rye whiskey?
At the time, yes. In 1799 alone, Washington’s Virginia distillery pumped out 11,000 barrels of rye whiskey. It was easier dominating the American rye whiskey industry than being the president had been.
So many whiskeys, so little time. But what is rye whiskey? To some, it’s the end-all, be-all. For others, it’s an exotic brew they haven’t tried yet.
Regardless, provided it’s been aged at least two years in new charred oak barrels and made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye grain, it’s rye, whether you sip it, mix it, or shoot it (don’t shoot it; it’s for enjoying).
Are you a rye veteran? Curious to give it a go? Do you have a favorite brand? Let us know in the comments— after you pour a glass, of course.