Rye is hot right now, there’s no doubt about it. With an extra dash of spice and fruitiness when compared to its bourbon cousins, rye has become a favorite bullet in the pro mixologists bandolier. So much so, that we drinkers have pretty much run through most of the nation’s supply of rye whiskey that has been laying in repose in oak for the past decade. This is a problem…
I was once at a trade tasting hosted by Jimmy Russell, the long-time master distiller at Wild Turkey. A stereotypically moustachioed hipster-type bartender asked him, “Hey Jimmy. How come we can’t get enough rye anymore? My customers are starting to love the stuff. Why can’t y’all keep up with demand?”
Russell didn’t hesitate before he spat out an answer, “Because you didn’t tell me you wanted it seven years ago when we were making the stuff!” It’s the truth.
Because distilleries have to make marketing decisions years in advance when they choose which blends to make and which grains to purchase, they have to anticipate trends to figure out what beautiful brown liquids to put into oak for aging. A decade ago, rye whiskey was a drink for old men and cowboys, not a fave of the burgeoning cocktail craze. So producers concentrated their efforts on bourbons. (And we still thank them for that.) Now, Rye shipments have grown by more than 20% annually over the past several years.
“We didn’t see this coming,” says Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe. “It’s going to take us a couple of years to catch up.”
“Nobody saw the Rye spike coming,” agrees Russell. “We’re completely out for the next two years.”
One option would be to try to release rye that hasn’t been aging as long, normally at least four years, to get some more in the pipeline. But this would only accelerate the problem and push the shortage off for a short time. Plus it would leave us with worse spirits to drink. Bad answer. Although, most producers have upped their production, it’s probably best that they allow the rye to age for an appropriate amount of time to give it the character we discerning drinkers deserve. Crappy young rye is rotgut.
Fortunately, at least a few distillers had the foresight and the volume to stay ahead of the curve and still have ample supplies available if you are just now deciding to start coming through the rye. And even luckier, they’re some damned fine ryes.
Fred Noe may be behind on production, but he ain’t out yet. Jim Beam Rye is one of the prototype versions of the genre. Look for the distinctive yellow label and you’ll be rewarded with a peppery spicy straight rye whiskey that makes the perfect Perfect Manhattan. BTW, a Perfect Manhattan is made with both sweet and dry vermouth and is the best way to experience rye in a cocktail. Ask for it by name, and if you’re bartender knows what you’re talking about, you know you’re drinking in the right place. Plus he’ll think you’re a smarter drinker than you probably are.
Locally, Prichard’s also makes a very nice 86 proof Rye Whiskey down in Kelso, TN. Fruitier than Beam, Prichard’s Rye is perfectly acceptable to drink straight up or with just a rock and a splash. You’ll taste apples and cinnamon and the deep vanilla of the oak, while at the same time enjoying the warm characteristic burn of rye whiskey as it trickles past your uvula. trust me. This is a good thing.
One more option to look forward to is the anticipated introduction of a rye from Lincoln Henderson and the folks at Angel’s Envy. Under Lincoln’s watchful eye, you can expect a spectacular example of rye whiskey to come out of their plant, and it will be worth the wait. I may go camp out on the front steps of my favorite liquor store to get the first taste.
So don’t be scared of the paucity of rye whiskey. Find one you like and stock up!