Bourbon and Rye: Whiskeys as American as Apple Pie



I know, bourbon and rye as American as apple pie? The case for bourbon is easy to make since it is officially, and legally, woven into the fabric of American history. In 1964, Congress declared that bourbon was “America’s Native Spirit,” and in 2007, designated September of that year “National Bourbon Heritage Month.” Distilling bourbon had, of course, started centuries earlier. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, in the 1700s, colonial Americans started converting grains to whiskey to make them easier to transport, and to prevent excess crops from going bad. Belk Library at Elon University states corn was particularly favored by the colonialists because the barley commonly used in Great Britain did not fare well on American soil. As a result, their attention turned to growing and distilling corn.

But don’t count rye out of the historic picture just yet. Dave Pickerell – who spent fourteen years as the master distiller at Maker’s Mark, and is now a consultant for the craft distilling movement — told Garden and Gun that authenticity is key in crafting historical cocktails. “And the fact is, the first American cocktails had rye in them,” Pickerell explained. “The whiskey rations during the Revolutionary War were in rye. If you want to be authentic, you need rye on the bar.”

It goes deeper than that — rye has presidential ties too. At Mount Vernon, George Washington had his own distillery which produced rye whiskey. According to Mount Vernon’s website, the original mash bill called for 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley. Washington would then sell the product to his neighbors. The distillery was installed in 1797 and 1798, and by 1799 (the year of Washington’s death) was already a commercial success. With almost 11,000 gallons produced in 1799, Washington’s whiskey operation was the largest at the time. 

Although the original distillery burned down in 1814, an archeological investigation led to the distillery being rebuilt as close to specifications as possible between 2005 and 2007. Visitors can now purchase rye whiskey — made as it was in the eighteenth century. But being the whiskey of Washington’s Mount Vernon didn’t save rye whiskey from falling out of favor 100 years later. Prohibition didn’t stamp out the desire to drink from American culture, but it did significantly lessen rye’s popularity.

Following the repeal of Prohibition, bourbon increasingly came to be placed in drinks that once used rye. Imbibe Magazine explains that by the time Prohibition ended, people viewed rye as the drink of the old. Tastes had altered, and newly unpopular rye bottles were left was to collect dust on the shelf. It is an uncool reputation the liquor maintained for many decades. That has changed in recent years, with rye making a return to the world of fashionable drinking.

Bourbon too suffered from Prohibition, the Smithsonian says, as tastes skewed to light liquors — gins and vodkas — that could be produced in secret, or the comfort of your bathtub. Bourbon, however, was able to be marketed as possessing “health benefits,” and sold at drugstores to people with prescriptions. Of course Canadian whiskeys had entered the market illegally during this time, and after the amendment was repealed, American distilleries used that country’s model — less aging — to quickly put product on the newly legal market. The product wasn’t up to snuff compared to the pre-speakeasy days, and whiskey as a whole was shuttled to the sidelines.

That changed in the 1980s, when aged, higher-end bourbons started taking up more shelf space at stores — and taking a chunk of sales too. In 2013, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says bourbon and Tennessee whiskey hit a new record, topping $1 billion in exports. A report cites that there is a “global whiskey renaissance,” which continues to grow as an enlarged middle class seeks to drink in Americana. Bourbon was highlighted for helping to drive the overall growth in whiskey; revenue growth in 2013 was 10.1 percent — a $643 million increase. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey was up 10.2 percent, reaching the $2.4 billion mark in revenues.

Bourbon must meet six criteria. Bourbons are made in the U.S. (1), it is at least 51 percent corn (2), and aged in new, charred white oak barrels — no barrels can be reused for bourbon (3). Bourbon is distilled at less than 160 proof (4), entering the barrel below 125 proof (5). True bourbon also has no added artificial colorings or flavors (6). Darker bourbons have higher alcohol contents than lighter ones, and “straight” bourbon must be aged for at least two years. Rye is made in a similar manner; it too must be aged in new oak barrels, is distilled at no more than 160 proof, and enters the barrel at no more than 125 proof. Obviously, the biggest point of difference is that instead of corn, rye’s mixture is at least 51 percent rye, not corn.

As a result of the corn-rye distinction, the tastes differ based on the grains. “Bourbon is kinda like whiskey’s ‘sweet spot,’” Jim Beam says on its website. “Why? Well, first, because corn is a sweet grain. The more corn, the sweeter the whiskey.” Rye on the other hand, comes across spicier. Of its Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye, the Sazerac Company says: “A small sip brings an array of flavors both sweet and savory with a terrific balance of dark spices and subtle caramel overtones. The finish is especially pleasing with an oaky dryness that lingers just long enough.”

The notes and subtle differences are especially useful when crafting specialty cocktails, or if you really want to get into whiskey drinking. For those who are so inclined, they could take up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which will take you around the bourbon distilleries, and history of Kentucky. Those unable to make it to the bluegrass state, or for fans of rye, check out one of the forty whiskey cocktails listed in Saveur, or drink a Sazerac, America’s first cocktail.

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