Rye whiskey has come a long way over the last decade. For what is arguably America’s oldest spirit, that’s saying a lot.
Historian David Wondrich has found evidence of something akin to rye being distilled in Salem, Massachusetts, as early as 1648. In the following years, rye took root along the East Coast and flourished there, especially in Maryland and Pennsylvania, until the early 20th century.
Then it vanished. Chalk it up to Prohibition, the rise of Kentucky distilling, changes in America’s collective palate or some combination of all those factors and more. Once the great distilleries shuttered, styles and methods were forgotten. Even in the early days of the bourbon revival, in the 2000s, it looked like rye might go overlooked—it is notoriously hard to make, and its reputation as a spice bomb seemed like a drink too far for whiskey novices.
It turns out, rye’s return was just a matter of time. Today scores of distilleries are making rye, and drinkers have come to embrace its alluring diversity. A young rye, bouncy and herbaceous, is practically another spirit entirely from one aged five years or longer, when barrel-influenced notes of mint, chocolate and vanilla take over. It mixes well and drinks just as nicely on its own.
We’re early in the rye renaissance, but it’s still possible to guess where the category might be headed. One clear direction is the rise of regionality. Traditional Pennsylvania rye, also called Old Monongahela, made with malted barley, unmalted rye and occasionally malted rye, is making a comeback, with more than a dozen distilleries across the state embracing the style. Maryland-style rye—made with corn, and bearing a much sweeter flavor profile—is likewise on the rise, especially among the half-dozen or more distilleries around Baltimore. And Kentucky rye, once dismissed as a sad shade of the spirit’s old glory, is winning respect and recognition as a style all its own.
All of this points even further to a word that many distillers don’t like to use: terroir. The last century of commodity-driven, industrial-scale distillation erased any memory of a time when distillers drew on local grain varieties, then distilled and aged their whiskey to draw out nuances. Not anymore. Rosen rye was once immensely popular among distillers around the Great Lakes; long neglected, it is again being grown for distillation.
We recently tried 15 representative ryes—some old standards, some new craft releases—to get a picture of where the category is, and where it is going. There were no stinkers in the bunch, but here are our top five under $50.