Rye Revolution

7/23/14 -


The grains used in American whiskey used to be determined by region. If it came from north of the Maison-Dixon line there was little chance of corn mingling with the local rye, wheras in Bluegrass country and further south, corn became the dominant grain – most famously as the main ingredient in Bourbon. Rye and Bourbon are made similarily – both must be aged in new, charred oak casks and the spirit can't be distilled to the point that the character of the grain is lost. In Bourbon the mash bill (the recipe of grains used to make the whiskey) has to be at least 51% corn, and rye whiskey at least 51% rye. Most ryes have a more savory, spicy character, and don’t have the sugary, corn structure Bourbon.

Although now extinct, Monongahela Rye is one of America’s most historically famous forms of whiskey.  It takes its name from the river that snakes up the southwest corner of Pennsylvania from the hills of West Virginia. In the early 1800s production of this whiskey with a mash bill of almost all rye and a drop of barley was prolific – 6.5 million gallons of whisky compared to Kentucky’s 2.2 million. Many of the nation’s first whiskey cocktails were made with rye and not Bourbon. What happened to Rye? Prohibition dealt a harsh blow to the industry and after the repeal many decided to use cheaper, less difficult to distill grains like corn. Few regional distilleries were able to survive against central Kentucky’s Bourbon giants and the last rye producer in Pennsylvania closed in the 1980s.

America’s taste in Rye has returned and a new breed of small distillers such as Dad's Hat are reviving traditional ryes. They may be located closer to Philadelphia than Pittsburgh, but the whiskey that they produce is stylisticly very similar to the Monongahela ryes of the past. Knowing where your rye is distilled can sometimes be confusing: Bulleitt, High West, Smooth Ambler, Redemption, Templeton, and James E. Pepper are all made at the same location in Indiana despite what marketing departments want you to think!  At Dad’s Hat the grains are sourced locally, the distillation is done in house on a hybrid pot-still, and, after an experimental period with small barrels, the aging is now done in traditional, large barrels.  We’re happy to announce that old fashioned rye in the spirit of Monongahela has returned, and we encourage you to try a bottle for your Manhattans, Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds, or even on its own.  JR

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