High Rye: Bourbon’s New (Old) Look

By Brett Moskowitz |

Legendary distiller Jimmy Russell once quipped that for several decades the only reason he made rye whiskey was so his old-timer friends had something to drink. Indeed, Rye barely survived decades of obscurity after Prohibition. The American palate had spurned the spirit’s peppery, spice-forward bite for bourbon’s sweet embrace. Yet, the rye grain has always been an important component in most bourbons—it commonly serves as the savory ballast to the sweet corn that predominates. Now, the cereal’s role in bourbon is under the microscope as rye consumption is on the rise post-Cocktail Renaissance.

Bourbon Mash Bills

For many iconic bourbon brands—think Jim Beam and Wild Turkey—corn (by law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn) comprises about 75% of the mash bill while rye (or sometimes wheat as with Maker’s Mark) and malted barley split the remainder. But high-rye bourbons include about 20%–35% of that grain, affording the spirits the versatility to substitute for rye whiskey in cocktails and to appeal to drinkers looking for a sipper that toes the line between spicy and sweet.

Imbibers in search of a high-rye bourbon will find there is still lots of diversity in the category. The fermentation and distillation processes, time in the barrel, and proof all contribute to character. Plus, one must also account for how-the-whiskey-is-consumed as well as the individual’s palate when making a selection. 

“There are high ryes that I love and high ryes I dislike,” says G. Clay Whittaker, Executive Editor at the Bourbon Review. “Rye is sort of like steel to me: it can be hard, it can be sharp, but it can be honed by gifted individuals to do a lot of things. In some [bourbon] whiskeys it’s a hefty, spicy punch of flavors with a telltale tingle in the back of your throat, but in others it’s adding cinnamon and clove and fruitcake notes to your corn foundation.”

Makin’ the mash. Here’s the start with some malted barley. [Photo by Neil916 CC BY-SA 3.0]

Because of all these other factors, rye level has rarely been part of the typical bourbon marketing pitch in years past. But with an unprecedented focus on transparency coupled with a boom in both whiskey consumption and competition, the cereal is no longer an afterthought. “You’re definitely starting to see these kinds of terms show up in new marketing and advertising campaigns where they hadn’t been before,” explains Whittaker. Some bottles even display that high-rye message right in the name; for examples, look no further than 1792 High Rye Bourbon—owned by Sazerac—and Redemption High Rye Bourbon from MGP of Indiana, both of which tout rye levels. 

Of course, high-rye is nothing new. Big brands like Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand-Dad (both now owned by Beam Suntory) have always employed rye-heavy mash bills, but a recent avalanche of smaller brands is forcing everyone to work harder to distinguish themselves from the crowd. 

When Bulleit launched its trend-setting high-rye bourbon in 1999, it was introduced as an alternative to corn-heavy options. Bartenders were told it was “a bit bolder and spicier, standing up much better in cocktails and ultimately making a better cocktail for the drinker,” says Ed Bello, US and Global Brand Director, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey. “This trend toward high rye Bourbon continues to grow as cocktail culture grows across the US and globally.” (Until the recent completion of its own Kentucky-based distillery, Bulleit Bourbon was sourced from other Kentucky-based distilleries while their rye was distilled in Indiana by MPG—like many other whiskey brands—using Bulleit’s recipe specifications.) 

Innovation Meets Tradition

Some companies never actually distill their own whiskey. Others, like New Riff Distilling in Northern Kentucky, source product for other spirits, bottling them until their own whiskey has matured in barrels. For New Riff Bourbon’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon—the high rye it distills in-house and brought to market this year—the producers sought some help. They consulted with a former master distiller from the famed 19th century Seagram’s Distillery plant in Lawrenecburg, Indiana (which is now owned and operated by MGP). 

“We’ve observed the rising profile of American rye whiskey and wanted to bring that angle to the bourbon as well,” says Jay Erisman, Co-Founder & V.P of Strategic Development for New Riff. “We were instructed in the arts of whiskey making by America’s greatest living rye distiller—Larry Ebersold. And so we chose to make that grain a center of our [bourbon] production.” 

Inside New Riff’s rickhouse, the bourbon ages. (Photo courtesy New Riff)

New Riff further distinguishes their high-rye bourbon by the fact that it meets the standard of “bottled in bond” and is never chill filtered.

“The good news in the craft world is that you’re seeing a lot of new products trying out different ways of doing things,” Whittaker says. “A lot of these small distillers are very open and transparent about what’s in the bottle, so there’s never really been a better time to be learning what you like and don’t like with certain grains.”

High-Rye Bourbon Cocktails

There aren’t really any classic cocktails that specifically call for high-rye bourbon, but creative bartenders are finding interesting ways to feature this style of whiskey. Aaron Polsky—Bar Manager of LA’s Harvard and Stone—created the Riff Raff, a boozy, stirred number that features two types of Italian amari, orange bitters, sweet vermouth and a high-rye bourbon. “I think that a great way to showcase high rye bourbon is to focus on the orange and cardamom notes and make them pop,” he says. “I tend to gravitate towards Old Grand Dad 100 proof, a new addition to a brand that’s long been a favorite. The Amaro Sfumato adds a touch of smoke, the orange and cardamom in the Regan’s [orange bitters] brings out those notes in the bourbon, and the Montenegro acts to brighten it up.”

Josh Cameron, head bartender at Boulton & Watt in New York City, created the Bear Necessities, a shaken high-rye bourbon cocktail with lime juice, amaro, and simple syrup. “The inspiration for this cocktail was the good, simple life, with the fig being something I imagine a bear eating, and the dehydrated lemon representing floating on ones back down a lazy river,” says Cameron. “The cocktail is Redemption [High Rye Bourbon] forward, and the sour/fresh citrus, sweet fruits of the fig, and the bitterness of the Fernet sit well together.”

Riff Raff

Print Recipe
Riff Raff
  1. Stir over ice until chilled.
  2. Serve either up in a coupe or over ice in a rocks glass.
  3. Garnish with an orange peel.

Bear Necessities

Print Recipe
The Bear Necessities
  1. Combine ingredients in a shaker. Add ice.
  2. Shake until cold.
  3. Double strain into a coupe.
  4. Garnish with dehydrated lemon.

Brett Moskowitz writes about therapeutic cocktails of the medicinal and alcoholic varieties. He has contributed to Food & Wine, Liquor.com, Esquire, Saveur, Tasting Table, Thrillist, Punch and others. He lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @bmoskowitz and Instagram @bsmoskowitz.

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