We explore rye whisky, as it enjoys a meteoric revival on the coattails of the bourbon boom. Rye’s unique properties herald a strong future in spirits.

No, I’m not talking about your newly perfected sourdough from your lockdown adventures, I’m talking about the classic American whiskey that, along with bourbon, is enjoying a meteoric revival.

Rye can be an enigmatic grain, as a commercial brewer of a red rye ale I am very familiar with the grain. It is a hard kernel, and a naked grain, meaning it has no husk, unlike barley or wheat. Rye is naturally high in beta-glucans which thickens a mash a bit like corn starch, making it often very technically difficult to work with in a brewery or distillery. So why go through all the trouble? Rye has unique properties in terms of flavour and mouthfeel, that’s why.

From a new make or un-aged white spirit distilled from rye, you can expect pepper, spice, anise, mint, nuttiness, earthiness, gingersnap, sourdough bread crust. It also tends to have a drying effect in terms of mouthfeel. This compared to unaged spirit from corn, which has a much more neutral mellow sweetness. Its fair to say that most bourbons get a lot of their “backbone”, balance, and complexity from at least some portion of rye ranging from 10%-35% of the mashbill.

Much like bourbon, rye whiskey is also an American invention, must be aged in new charred oak, must be made from at least 51% rye. Dave Pickerill, former master distiller of Makers Mark, and one of the world’s best makers of rye has framed two styles of rye, most common being Baltimore (utilising the minimum amount of 51%) and less common, Monongahela at 95% rye. The latter style typically delivering powerful and spicy whiskies.

Rye whiskey went out of fashion during prohibition, and was scarce thereafter, as gin and vodka were popularised, and only a few labels hung on for dear life. The rise of the Manhattan, Sazerac and Old-Fashioned cocktails have supported rye’s resurgence, and of course it is now being driven by the bourbon boom, as bourbon drinkers that want a less sweet, punchier flavour gravitate towards high rye bourbons, or just straight rye whiskey. Personally, I am a big fan of a rye whiskey with a bit of age in it. Michters 10-year-old, or a Thomas H Handy Sazerac spring to mind, but good luck finding these as they have gone on allocation in the states, with soaring auction prices.

But fear not, one of the joys of a being a spirit nut is hunting for quality that has not yet had its price hyped out of control. Enter Widow Jane Rye. Small batch, craft rye whiskey with two expressions driven by different wood maturation profiles (straight American Oak, and another finished on Apple Wood).

Widow Jane American Oak Aged Rye Whiskey

As I type, I’m nosing the American Oak expression and getting sweet nuttiness, vanillin, gentle spice, bread crust, candied orange peel, they all follow through onto the palate, and are joined by a lovely bready note.

Now onto the Apple Wood Aged expression. There is definitely an apple note here, it is not imagined. Lovely gentle nose, some sort of baked apple with confectionary spices. Perfumed. Perhaps a little drier than its cousin above, though echoing its profile.

Both of these lovely whiskies brought a rye smile to my face.

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