Rye: America's 'other' whiskey is giving bourbon a run for its money

Jon Howard, the bar director at The Continental, stirs a Sazerac rye drink in Nashville, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.
Brad Japhe and Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

Rye is often viewed as America’s other whiskey, a category of aged liquor second in stature (and sales) to bourbon. But these circumstances are a stubborn leftover of the 20th century, and in the modern era they’re rapidly shifting, especially in the South.

Here, a determined band of craft-minded blenders, distillers and mixologists are repositioning the savory spirit, named after the primary grain used to produce it. You can observe the movement on back bars from New Orleans to Northern Virginia, where bottles of rye now sit prominently alongside their bourbon brethren.

It’s a comeback story centuries in the making. After the Revolutionary War, rye proliferated through wide swaths of the former colonies. This was decades before corn, bourbon's main ingredient, would become a staple crop. Many farmers would distill excess rye into a potent potable just before winter frost. As a result, rye whiskey flowed in abundance across the nascent nation.

Old Fashioned:7 great Southern bars where you can drink the best Old Fashioneds in the South

“Rye is a fascinating category,” said Andrea Wilson, master of maturation for Michter’s Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky. "It was America’s first whiskey, and it was enormously popular until Prohibition. But after that, there were only a handful of ryes as the industry concentrated on blended American whiskey and bourbon.”

This consolidation was more about economics than flavor. Blended whiskey was cheap to produce because it contained a high proportion of industrially-sourced grain spirit. Corn subsidies introduced during the New Deal era helped pad bourbon makers' bottom line. As a raw ingredient in whiskey production, rye wasn’t just more expensive, it was also finicky to manage during fermentation and distillation.

But it sure has a beautiful flavor component, responsible for all sorts of earthy aromas and spiced tonalities. A proper example of rye — like the flagship bottling from Michter’s— offers to the nose dill, caraway and clove, with hints of caramel, mint and black pepper. Compare this to the sweeter profile of bourbon as you would rye bread to cornbread.

Rye owns sturdier elements which show well through cocktail construction, which is why archetypal bartenders of the mid-1800s relied on it to make their most famous whiskey preparations. When Jerry Thomas published his now-legendary tome "The Bar-Tenders Guide" in 1862, virtually all cocktails involving whiskey were actually calling for rye.

It’s only fitting, then, that mixologists helped revive the category in the modern era.

"Rye has really picked up as a legitimate drinking option among bartenders, casual drinkers and bourbon aficionados," said Jon Howard, beverage director for The Continental and Audrey in Nashville, two of the newest restaurants in star chef Sean Brock's expanding portfolio.

From 2020:Chef Sean Brock opens newest Nashville restaurant, The Continental

More:Burgers, biscuits, shakes: Sean Brock reimagines fast food at Joyland

When Howard began his bartending career in 2006, even well-stocked bars carried only a select few bottles of rye, he said. Now, as its star begins to rise again, rye production is more widespread.

"Even those bigger whiskey houses that were bourbon houses for many, many years have started to develop amazing rye whiskies," Howard said. "And for those of us that make drinks for a living, (it's) incredible for us to be able to have more options and to see the versatility of what rye whiskey can be and where it can go in the future, because I don't think it's over yet."

A Sazerac rye drink made at the Continental restaurant on Broadway in Nashville, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022.

The Continental's 'Sazarac' recipe

At The Continental, Howard pays homage to rye in a creative take on a Sazerac with a splash of butternut squash vinegar, which makes for a brighter drink. Butternut squash nods to the fading winter, while peach cognac looks to the approach of warm weather. 

Ingredients

1 ounce George Dickel Rye

1 ounce Pierre Ferrand Peach Cognac 

1/4 ounce brown sugar simple syrup

1 dash Angostura bitters

4 dashes butternut squash vinegar

Becherovka rinse

Instructions

Build over ice in a mixing glass, and then pour into a Becherovka-rinsed neat glass. Finish with lemon oil or a twist of lemon peel. 

Cocktail recipes:How to mix up a Sazerac, an iconic New Orleans cocktail

Classic Sazerac recipe

This New Orleans classic is an iconic cocktail and a staple in any good barkeep's repertoire. You will need a mixing glass, strainer and a rocks glass for this recipe.

Ingredients

1 teaspoon Herbsaint liqueur

2 ounces rye whiskey    

1/2 ounce simple syrup

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Lemon twist

Instructions

Swirl the Herbsaint to coat the inside of a rocks glass and dump the remainder. Place a large ice cube in the glass.

In a cocktail mixing glass, stir the rye, simple syrup and bitters with ice until cold. Strain into the rocks glass and add the lemon twist. Serve.

A classic boulevardier with Michter's rye, sweet vermouth, and Campari.

Boulevardier recipe

The Negroni is Italy's brilliant gift to lovers of stiff and bitter drinks. Made with equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari, it is infinitely adaptable (try mezcal instead of gin, dry vermouth instead of sweet or Jagermeister instead of Campari). The Boulevardier, the classic whiskey version of a Negroni, might be more delicious than the original. Here, we've made it with rye.

Ingredients

1 ounce rye

1 ounce sweet vermouth

1 ounce Campari

Orange twist

Instructions

Combine rye, vermouth and Campari in an Old-Fashioned glass over ice. Stir to combine. Garnish with an orange twist.