The rise and rise of ryes

That rye whisky is in high demand will come as news to no one. But as Dominic Roskrow reports, we ain’t seen nothing yet….

As statements go, it takes some beating: “Rye whisky has so many different varieties and can be produced in so many different ways. It offers a whole new world of aromas to discover. In a few years I think rye can offer the same sort of quality and variety as Scottish single malt.”

The speaker is Frédéric Revol, manager at Domaine des Hautes Glaces in  France and the producer of Vulson White Rhino Rye, a fledgling rye spirit that is at the vanguard of what might well turn out to be a major trend in spirits over the next decade.

It should come as no surprise to anyone with their finger on the pulse of the whisky industry to see that two of the top five whiskies in the 2016 edition of The Whisky Bible were ryes – although one or two eyebrows were raised at the choice of Canada’s Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, even in Canada.

Rye has been enjoying its place in the sun for some time now, and not just with good ol’ boys down at the levee. Demand has soared as bartenders and mixologists have been seduced by the lure of the spirit’s spiciness. What had for decades been something of a pariah spirit is now enjoying the sort of acclaim and popularity it hasn’t seen since way back in America’s pioneering days. Truth be told, though, there’s considerable ignorance as to what rye whisky actually is. And there are plenty of European distillers who are determined to show the grain off in a surprisingly diverse and unusual light.

When we talk about rye, two distinctive and very different styles of whisk(e)y come to mind. First we tend to think of the bland, uninspiring rye whiskies from Canada, consumed with dry ginger and ice, and the staple favourite of an ageing generation not noted for their adventurous tastes.


Such whiskies do a disservice to Canada, for several reasons. Firstly, because the country is in the grip of its own craft distilling revolution and, after decades of navel-gazing, is starting to get the world to sit up and take notice of some tasty and original whiskies. Second, because many of the famous ‘Canadian’ whiskies are owned by American corporations, which have been more than happy to service a demand for bland and uninspired whiskies.

And third, because many of them are named rye whiskies for traditional reasons but contain other grain whiskies and may not contain rye at all. Furthermore, under Canadian regulations producers are allowed to add a small amount of another liquid, including bourbon – made from a mash dominated by corn – and even fruit juice. The result is, therefore, a whisky that has little to do with the spicy, savoury quality of rye made south in the United States.

American rye has a history stretching back to the war of independence. The whiskey produced at the George Washington distillery at Mount Vernon is a rye, reflecting what would have been consumed at the time, and the harsh whiskeys featured in countless cowboy films would have been rye.