Rye vs. Bourbon

A Brief History of American Grain Spirits.

When it comes to whiskey, I am a Rye guy. In a world that is enamored with Bourbon, Rye takes the back seat to corn these days, but when did this phenomenon happen?

In colonial times, though rum was the favored tipple, as far as grain spirits went, Rye was preferred over the newly discovered corn whiskey. In the early 17th century, George Thorpe figured out that he could distill the mash of Indian Corn with good results.  In a letter to his cousin he exclaimed, “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corne I have divers times refused to drinke good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that”.  It was when the British created blockades of American ports during the Revolutionary war, cutting off our molasses supply that grain whiskey became more prominent.  Indian corn was not grown above the Mason-Dixon line and Rye was readily available so it became rums natural successor.

Rye was abundant and the Scottish and Irish immigrants who settled in western Pennsylvania and Maryland were not new to distilling it.  By the late 18th century over 5000 farm, still-houses were operating in western Pennsylvania producing what was known as Old Monongahela Rye.  This spirit got a reputation for its smoothness and slightly amber hue in a time where most whiskies were consumed before having enough barrel aging to color or mellow.  Produced from mostly Rye with some Malted Barley (typically 4-1) and distilled in a 3-chamber column/pot still using only sweet mash and pure Monongahela river water made it a domestic whiskey above all others of the time.

The most significant event that moved towards Bourbon’s favor came when Western Pennsylvania farmers (distillers), upset over President Washington’s excise tax on whiskey, started the Whiskey Rebellion which lasted from 1791 to 1794.  This prompted an exodus to the vast farmlands in the newly established state of Kentucky (1792) where tax collectors found it a bit more challenging to collect the excise.  These farmlands grew corn and this began the trend towards a new style of whiskey. Established in 1785, Bourbon County was named after the French House of Bourbon in thanks for their support in the Revolutionary war.  Though the origins of how the whisky adopted the name Bourbon are vague, it most likely came from barrels marked with the regional name “Old Bourbon” a reference to the shipping port along the Ohio river.

Prohibition put a halt to bourbon production from 1919 to 1933 or at least drove it into the hands of bootleggers who rarely pushed for quality over quantity.  Post prohibition Bourbon enjoyed a modest following, often considered an old man’s whiskey and Rye sales fell into near extinction.  It wasn’t until the past twenty years that Bourbon had a re-birth with a younger audience hungry for iconic names like Blanton’s and Pappy Van Winkle.  In this rebirth Rye still hangs in the shadows of Bourbon with modest growth in the market.  In an interview, Larry Kass from Heaven Hill distillers said “We spill more bourbon in a day than we sell rye in a year.”

Who knows what the future will bring as trends change and tastes evolve.  Bourbon mash bills (only requiring 51% corn) often tout “High Rye” content employing a significant portion of Rye into their blends for the spicy, peppery character and dimension it adds to the corn spirit.  Craft bartenders are using Rye in their creations finding it a more interesting spirit when mixed than Bourbon.  As Bourbon supplies become more challenged due to its popularity, and prices continue to rise, we may see resurgence in Rye and a return to America’s first favored whiskey.  Time will tell!