(n.) Rye whiskey must be made from a grain bill of at least 51-percent rye, with the rest comprised of a mix of wheat, corn and malted barley. When aged for at least two years in oak barrels, it may bear the label “straight.” Like bourbon, it may not be distilled higher than 160 proof to preserve the character of the grain, and must be bottled at more than 80 proof. Note that Canadian “rye” is not subject to the same labeling laws as those in the United States and often contains very little to no rye in the product.
Once the brightest star in the constellation of American spirits, rye whiskey’s production dates back to the colonial era and the spirit figured prominently in the drink recipes of the day. Prohibition, however, kneecapped production and the category remained largely dormant for the next 70 years until the dual fires of cocktail craze and whiskey renaissance ignited interest again.
Rye carries a spicier, more sour character than sweet bourbon and forms the robust backbone to some of the most iconic American cocktails, including the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan and the Sazerac. American producers to seek out include Rittenhouse, Michter’s and Willett. Because rye fell out of favor in the U.S. market, there are few aged versions available today, but expect that to change as distillers respond to increasing demand for the product.