Rye Whiskey: A Spicy and Bold American Classic

What is the very first thing that pops into your head when I say the term “whiskey”? Almost everyone agrees that this amber liquid is tasty. When you consider the enormous range of whiskies available, however, you realize that this description leaves out a lot. The ingredients, age, and distillation method used to create one bottle of whiskey can make all the difference in the world when comparing it to another.

Rye whiskey, a less popular American whiskey variety than bourbon, was once widely misunderstood and unappreciated. Rye whiskey is special and tasty; it should have a position among other whiskies. An introduction to one of the most flavourful whiskey varieties, complete with some interesting trivia!

Why is Rye Whiskey So Unique?

There are several distinguishing characteristics of rye whiskey, but the primary one is its high rye mash bill. Rye is a type of cereal grain that thrives in cooler environments. American rye whiskey must be at least 51% rye by law, though most distillers utilize much more rye in the mash bill. Think about how the flavor of wine might shift depending on the type of grapes used. Whiskey is made from the same kinds of cereal grains.

What is Rye Whiskey?

As was previously said, rye is a type of cereal grain that thrives in colder regions. Cultivation of rye dates back thousands of years, at least to early Turkey around 1800 BCE. The grain is now widely consumed in many countries, including Russia, Germany, Canada, and the northern regions of the United States.

Rye bread, which can be found at any decent New York-style deli, is probably the type of bread you are most familiar with. Rye, a more savory and robust grain, imparts an earthy, herbal flavor to baked foods that are noticeably different from the milder flavors of white or wheat bread. Rye bread has a spicy, earthy flavor, so it goes well with condiments that have a lot of flavors themselves, like mustard.

How Does Rye Change a Whiskey’s Taste?

Rye bread gives us a sense of the grain’s flavor, but if you’ve ever compared a slice of toast to a shot of whiskey, you know the two are very different.

Rye has a profound effect on the whiskey’s flavor. Rye whiskey takes on the grain’s more robust aromas and flavors. This imparts a spiciness to the rye whiskey, similar to that of cinnamon rather than chili peppers.

Rye whiskey made by different distilleries can have very diverse flavors. This is because the definition of “rye whiskey” only requires 51% rye in the mash bill. 

Some distilleries use a minimum of 51% rye in their rye whiskey, with the remaining grains being a blend of corn, wheat, barley, or other cereals. The rye whiskey produced by certain other distilleries is made entirely of rye (a method frequently referred to as “Monongahela style”), so you taste nothing but the rye.

What Are the Origins of Rye Whiskey

Although bourbon receives more attention, rye whiskey is the more traditional American whiskey. Pennsylvanian farmers began distilling rye whiskey around 1750, while Kentucky distillers did not start producing bourbon until 1783. In states like Maryland, its appeal to farmers and consumers has only increased. George Washington liked rye whiskey best, and he distilled it himself at his Virginia distillery on the banks of Dogue Creek.

Midwestern bourbon distilleries and Atlantic rye whiskey producers both suffered greatly as a result of Prohibition. However, rye never recovered to the same extent as bourbon did when American soldiers returned from World War II with a preference for Scotch (which comes from Scotland) and Irish whiskey.

These days, rye whiskies are typically produced as a side project by bourbon distilleries. You’ll also discover that Indiana is a major producer of this. While rye may not be as mainstream as it once was, it is still an excellent whiskey that is underappreciated.

What Are The Stages of Rye Whiskey Production?

The production of rye whiskey is similar to that of other American whiskies, with a few important differences. Some of the stages will be examined in greater detail below.

The Grains Must Be Selected and Mashed

The first thing a distiller does when manufacturing rye whiskey is to choose the grains that will go into the mash bill. The percentage of rye in the mash bill can range from 51% to 100%, depending on the distillery. The remaining 49% can be made up of whichever cereal grains the distiller deems appropriate, including but not limited to corn, wheat, malted barley, etc.

The grains are then milled into fine flour and combined with water to form a porridge. This facilitates the yeast’s metabolism of the sugars in the grains during fermentation.


The next step, fermentation, is where the alcohol is produced once the grain has been mashed. The yeast is added to the mash after the mash has been transferred to a big container. Yeast ferments the grain by consuming the carbohydrates therein to produce alcohol.

Once the combination has fermented, which can take anywhere from two to five days, it will be ready to use. The alcohol content of the beverage will be roughly 12%, or about the same as a standard wine. The distillers’ beer is a common name for this beverage.

The Third Step is Distillation

After that, rye whiskey is distilled using either the more common pot still or the less common column still. In this short article, we will examine the technique of pot still distillation, which is used to create the excellent, high-proof whiskey for which this country is famous.

The beer used in distilling is placed in a big copper or metal pot and heated from below. The alcohol in the distillers’ beer evaporates at a lower temperature because its boiling point is lower than that of water and the other ingredients. A chamber is used to let this vapor escape. Once the gas is collected, it is cooled in a condensing chamber, where the alcohol concentration in the liquid increases. What isn’t used is thrown away, and the procedure is repeated with the filtered liquid until the desired alcohol content is reached, which can be as high as 160 proof (or 80% alcohol).

The Ageing Process

This is when rye whiskey (or whiskey of any kind) truly shines. New charred American oak barrels, which are liquid-tight but not airtight, are used to store the distilled whiskey. Because of this, the oak’s porousness shifts as the wood expands and contracts in response to temperature variations.

By doing so, the whiskey is drawn into and forced out of the wood cask, absorbing the charred wood’s natural color and flavor compounds as well as its botanicals. When whiskey first goes into a barrel, it is often clear, therefore this is what gives it its flavor and color.

Before being bottled, whiskey is matured for at least two years, and more commonly four or more. There are other alternatives out there besides “bottled-in-bond,” such as “straight rye whiskey,” which will be matured for at least two years and won’t contain any other spirits. 


Whiskey is finished when it is bottled. To ensure that each bottle of rye whiskey tastes the same as the last, distilleries typically combine whiskey from multiple barrels into a single bottle.  Rye whiskey from a single barrel is used to create single-barrel offerings, which retain all the qualities of that barrel.

Key Points About Rye Whiskey

Everyone who enjoys whiskey should give rye a go at least once. You may come to prefer the peppery sweetness of rye whiskey to the smooth caramel of bourbon. In the United States, rye whiskey must be at least 51% rye and can be as high as 100% rye. The whiskey can’t be more than 160 proof (or 80% ABV) and must be matured in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.