It’s back, to the joy of whiskey lovers.
This is Tennessee. We know whiskey. We’ve been drinking whiskey since we could hold a bottle. And we’ve been specifically raised to reach for that branded Kentucky bourbon instead of the plain-Jane-never-done-a-bad-thing-in-her-life-whiskey. In fact, the world of whiskey has been dominated by bourbon since 1920—the start of Prohibition.
But before Prohibition changed everything, we had choices. We could trade our bourbon for rye. And now, almost 100 years later, we’re getting our choices back.
Rye whiskey has been coming into the liquor scene with great gusto these past few years, with good reason. The taste, for one, is spicier and more aggressive than its bourbon counterparts. While both types of whiskeys can be enjoyed straight or mixed, the spice of rye makes it a go-to for classic cocktails like the Manhattan or Sazerac. Only recently, however, has quality rye whiskey been made readily available.
The story of rye’s comeback season begins in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Liquor company Seagram’s produced tons of rye whiskey with the intention of combining it into other blended whiskeys, not to be bottled independently.
But financial hardships forced Seagram’s to sell its distilleries and its rye whiskey. The rye was sold off to some independent bottlers and to two giant producers—Pernod Ricard and Diageo. To give you an idea of size, Pernod Ricard produces liquors like Absolut and Jameson, and Diageo produces Smirnoff and Captain Morgan.
So this rye whiskey was distributed among multiple brands and has been spread throughout the whiskey world for the past decade. But age is ever-important to the taste of whiskey, and the original hoard of Lawrenceburg rye was quickly running out as demand increased exponentially. So Midwest Grain Products (MGP) bought the Lawrenceburg distillery in 2011, with hopes of reproducing Seagram’s rye whiskey as closely as possible.
And now new craft distillers are all in a hurry to get this rye whiskey in stock. The only problem is that it takes years to age whiskey, but a new distiller doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for years. So these distillers can do one of two things. They can either buy MGP’s rye to blend and bottle as their own, or they can produce their own rye whiskey and bottle it immediately without aging—something Jack Daniel’s has done with their Unaged Tennessee Rye.
The process of rebranding MGP’s mass-produced rye whiskey as craft or local has caused recent controversy and lawsuits. This controversy will hopefully compel local distillers to create new, unique rye whiskeys. Because it’s been 100 years—and the whiskey drinkers want their choices back.