How Rye Came Back

The unexpected source of a craft-whiskey boom

Lee Shelly

“Two bottles of rye!,” Ray Milland barks to a liquor-store clerk in Billy Wilder’s classic 1945 film, The Lost Weekend. “The cheapest. None of that 12-year-old chichi aged in wood—not for me.”

Though rye whiskey anchored many fabled cocktails in the 19th century—including the Manhattan and the Sazerac—in the 20th it became known as bourbon’s less suave cousin, the geezer’s go-to. Threatened with extinction after Prohibition, it survived by going feral in Cheever-esque bars, drunk only by those who hadn’t heard that the world had moved on to more-modern libations. When you could find rye at all, it was more often than not Old Overholt, an inexpensive but unexciting whiskey that traces its origins to 1810.

But all of that changed about a decade ago, when craft bartenders striving for authenticity started clamoring for the spirit once again. Today, rye whiskey—made from the same spicy grain as rye bread—has entered a new golden age. A decent liquor store may now stock half a dozen or more ryes, hailing from San Francisco and the Hudson Valley and even Mount Vernon, which operates a re-creation of George Washington’s late-18th-century distillery. There are now just under 100 brands of rye in production in the United States.

What few people know, however, is that an awful lot of the craft whiskey found in these different bottles traces back to a single distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana—and it wasn’t originally intended to be bottled as rye at all.

Yet Jay Erisman, now with New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky, calls this some of “the best rye in the history of rye.” It was initially produced and aged by Seagram’s, a mighty empire with the Indiana distillery as its hub. The assertive whiskey was made not to be consumed on its own but as a component to add flavor to the company’s other products, including blended whiskeys such as Crown Royal and Seagram’s Seven.

In the 1990s, the Seagram’s heirs went chasing after Hollywood unicorns, buying MCA—the parent of Universal Studios and its theme parks—with spectacularly disastrous results. Seagram’s, which had been in the liquor business since 1857, tanked and sold off its distilleries. The Indiana rye, sitting in barrels stacked in warehouses, was acquired by a major spirits producer, Pernod Ricard. Some of the whiskey was bottled up by another large producer, Diageo, which branded it as Bulleit rye; other barrels were sold off to independent bottlers, who blended it with other whiskeys or aged it further and then slapped their own labels on it. You’ll find this ur-rye in bottles of Templeton, High West, Redemption, Willett, and Old Scout, among others.

These independent bottlers, it turned out, hit a trifecta: they snapped up superb aged rye, they acquired it on the cheap, and they did so just as consumer demand began to explode.

Larry Ebersold, the former distiller at Seagram’s, told me that the company had put considerable research into the development of its rye whiskey. Researchers experimented with distilling methods and then adjusted the proportions of grain. One breakthrough came after they received a shipment of rye grain from Sweden. Rather than smelling like “a barnyard,” as did most of the domestic rye they used, Ebersold recalled, “this was some of the sweetest-smelling rye grain and made some of the best rye whiskey we had ever produced.” The company soon changed how it handled its grain to amass rye that resembled the Swedish shipment.

The Indiana distillery was purchased in 2011 by Midwest Grain Products Ingredients, a commodity producer based in Atchison, Kansas, which says it’s committed to producing high-quality rye and bourbon. But whether it can duplicate the quality of Seagram’s original remains to be seen. In any case, with a roughly five-year lead time to allow for aging, it will be a while before supply can catch up with demand.

Meanwhile, the bottlers who stumbled upon that remarkable stash of unused rye are now scrambling to find new sources of aged rye—a difficult task, given limited supplies. Some, such as Templeton, are now distilling and aging their own.

But regardless of where the whiskey comes from, our newfound thirst for rye seems here to stay. Craft distillers are even rolling out long-forgotten variations, including Monongahela and Maryland ryes. “It’s not a fad,” Jay Erisman says. “It’s part of a cultural shift in drinking.”

The days when Old Overholt was the only rye on the shelf, in other words, are now safely behind us.