photo by Joy Solano

Now, that we’ve had the opportunity to properly cover the very unique and fun path of rye whiskey’s history in the US, last month, we can delve a little more deeply and cover some of the most commonly asked American whiskey questions, the laws and then introduce you to some must-have rye whiskey brands. 

Firstly, the Tax and Trade Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco (TTB), is a division of the US Department of Treasury and is essentially the end-all-be-all that regulates everything from alcohol production to the bottle labeling in this country, as well as alcoholic beverage imports and exports. However, maneuvering through the TTB’s website can be a daunting task in the search for additional wisdom. Surprisingly enough, one will come across many different subcategories of American whiskey and very soon discover that some are obsolete, while some newer categories (i.e. American Single Malt & Sorghum Whiskey) are not even regulated yet.

Why, do I mention this? Because to properly understand the differences between one style of American whiskey to the next, it all boils down to the local laws, first. And, this goes for any style of distilled (and fermented) beverage category and its country of origin. Secondly, it’s all up to the brand what direction it wants to take its product(s), following its country’s guidelines and laws established for that particular category. Let me stop right here for a quick moment, however! Because it’s not all that cut and dry. A lot of these laws are based upon how a particular spirit is produced, but it gets really tricky (and sensitive) when aging dictates how a spirit gets shifted into a whole new category. 

One of the very few established universal laws regarding any whiskey is that it must be a distilled beverage made from one or more grains. However, there are many styles of whiskey, regardless of its spelling and style, and some categories are much more stringently regulated. Since we’re talking about American whiskey, let me take the two most popular categories—bourbon and rye—and break them down by showing their commonalities and differences. 

Legally, bourbon can be produced anywhere in the US, but only in the US, ever since it became a protected native spirit in 1964. Although rye whiskey is predominantly produced in the US, it can be produced anywhere. However, Canada is really the only other country that produces a similar style of rye whiskey comparable to ours, even though “Canadian rye” is by no means as regulated as ours is, nor does it even have to contain any rye, at all! Oh, Canada!! 

Secondly, when we talk about American whiskeys, the term mash bill becomes relevant. A mash bill simply means the breakdown by percentage of which grains make up a certain whiskey. For bourbon, the mash bill must contain no less than 51% corn (typically higher) and usually also contains rye or wheat as the flavoring grain with a small amount of malted barley to aid in the fermentation process. For an American rye, it must contain no less than 51% rye, typically followed by corn as its flavoring grain and malted barley; however, some rye producers elect to make a bolder style and leave out the flavoring grain altogether. Flavor-wise, think of corn bread versus rye bread. Corn is more palatable, sweeter and subtle. Rye, depending on where it’s sourced, can range in flavors from subtle fruit to the more typical pepper spice, earthier and robust. The laws that these two categories do share are: Either style cannot be distilled above 160 proof/80% ABV, the highest proof upon initial barrel entry cannot exceed 125 proof/62.5% ABV, both styles must initially be aged in virgin charred oak barrels, cannot contain anything but water as an additive and final product cannot be less than 80 proof or 40% ABV. Also worth mentioning, the moment the new spirit comes into contact with the virgin charred oak container, by law it becomes that spirit. In order for it to contain the “straight” designation on the label, all of the whiskeys in that vatting must be a minimum of two years old. If the whiskey is aged for less than four years, it must disclose the age on the label. And, of course, if there is an actual age statement on the label, and the whiskey is not a single barrel/cask, it must be representative of the youngest whiskey (commonly practiced in all whiskey producing countries). 

Luckily, with so many quality rye options available today, we have the luxury of being both selective and adventurous. If you would like to indulge in a very unique style of rye that is reminiscent of the late 1700s/earlier 1800s, then snag yourself a bottle of Old Potrero 18th Century (Hotaling & Co.) made from 100% malted rye and aged for only 2 ½ years in both virgin and used toasted virgin oak barrels. This brand was one of the very first Post-Prohibition craft whiskies made by the legendary brewer turned distiller, Fritz Maytag. As I had alluded to earlier, due to the fact that this rye is not aged exclusively in virgin charred oak barrels, by law, it has to be labeled differently. 

Going from young to old, two amazing brands that you need to absolutely snag are both Lock Stock & Barrel 16 & 18-year expressions and the Hochstadter’s 16-year Family Reserve from Cooper Spirits. Simply amazing, yet very different from one another! Although, the LSB products are made in Alberta, Canada, they are both made from 100% rye and aged for an extremely long time and made in very limited-edition releases. The Hochstadter’s is a vatting of 100% old Canadian rye and old American rye bottled at barrel proof in the US. 

Lastly, is Kentucky Owl rye, which is from a storied brand owned by the Dedman family of Kentucky, lost to Prohibition (with rumored ties to Al Capone) and recently resurrected by the members of the same family. This 11-year rye is produced in very small numbered batches, also bottled at barrel proof and released in very limited amounts. 

These are but just a handful of many stellar rye whiskeys, and who knows? Just maybe, you’ll also fall victim and find yourself smitten with rye. Cheers!