Whiskey Basics Vol. 2: What is Rye Whiskey?
May 14, 2023
Interest in rye whiskey has surged in recent years as bourbon drinkers have begun to branch out and explore new categories. While less-experienced drinkers may find rye whiskey to be a bit too assertive (particularly at higher proofs), this spicy, but still noticeably sweet and rich spirit is the next logical step for many bourbon enthusiasts looking to diversify their palate and whiskey shelf. But what exactly is rye whiskey, and how is it defined according to US law?
First and foremost, rye whiskey is made from a mash that consists of at least 51% rye grain. Other grains, such as corn and barley, may also be included in the mash, but rye must be the dominant ingredient. The use of rye in the mash gives the whiskey its characteristic spicy and fruity flavor profile. This distinctive palate has led many producers to trend toward higher and higher percentages of rye in their mash bill - further distinguishing rye whiskey from its sweeter, less-spicy counterparts.
In addition to the use of rye in the mash, rye whiskey is also subject to certain aging requirements. To be considered a straight rye whiskey, it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. This aging process allows the whiskey to take on the flavors and aromas of the wood, as well as mellow out any harsh flavors from the mash. That being said, there is no hard-and-fast rule about how long a rye whiskey should age. Some rye, particularly when done well, ages quickly and makes for an excellent sipper in as few as 2-3 years. Others take a bit more time to fully mature and round-out the more grain-forward notes of the whiskey.
Much like bourbon, rye whiskey can also be categorized as bottled-in-bond. This designation indicates that the whiskey meets certain additional requirements set forth by the US government. Specifically, bottled in bond rye whiskey must be made by a single distiller at a single distillery in a single distilling season (which lasts no more than six months), aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at exactly 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume).
While the bolder nature of rye whiskey can seem daunting to new drinkers, it is a category of whiskey that unquestionably deserves a spot (preferably several) on your shelf. So pick up a bottle at your favorite store, put down your bourbon (for a few seconds), and pour yourself a glass of America’s other signature spirit - rye whiskey. Cheers!