What is American Rye Whiskey?

 In Blog, What is?

The roots of American rye whiskey, bourbons more peppery cousin, dates back to the founding of the nation. Certainly not the first but perhaps the most well known distiller of American rye whiskey is none other than the nation’s first president, George Washington.

In 1797, George Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson, convinced his employer that producing whiskey made from corn and rye grown on the estate would be a natural complement to his milling business. By 1799, Washington produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey, worth the then-substantial sum of $7,500.

American Rye Whiskey is Back

Rye Whiskey has enjoyed a resurgence along with other American Whiskeys. Rye Whiskey was all but forgotten in the 1980s and 1990s. It might have just been those “good ole boys” drinking “whiskey and Rye” in the 1971 Don McClean song, “American Pie,” but today everyone is enjoying Rye Whiskey. Since 2009, volumes have increased 934 percent, growing to 912.2 thousand cases in 2017. Take a look at this growth chart provided by the Distilled Spirits Council to see rye’s rapid growth.
Distilled Spirits Council - U.S. Rye Whiskey Sales Volume 2009-2017

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What is American Rye Whiskey?

Here is the short definition of American Rye Whiskey. The full TTB description is below.

  • It must be made of at least 51% rye mashbill
  • Distilled no higher than 160 proof (80% ABV)
  • Enter the barrel at no higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
  • Stored in charred new oak containers
  • Bottled no lower than 80 proof (40% ABV)

“American Rye Whiskey” is a Distinctive Product of the United States

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States – DISCUS recently announced its support for President Trumps new US, Mexico & Canada Trade Agreement – (USMCA). A part of that agreement includes a “Side Letter” between the United States and Mexico to consider granting product recognition for “American Rye Whiskey” as a distinctive product of the United States similar to recognition of Bourbon” and “Tennessee Whiskey” in Canada and Mexico, and for “Canadian Whiskey,” “Tequila” and “Mescal” in the United States.

U.S. – Mexico Side Letter on Distilled Spirits
“Mexico shall initiate, subject to its applicable laws and regulations, the process to consider prohibiting the sale of any product in Mexico as American Rye Whiskey, if it has not been manufactured in the United States in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States governing the manufacture of American Rye Whiskey.”

If this gets included in the final USMCA agreement, it could be a game changer for American Rye Whiskey.

How Does the TTB Define Rye Whiskey?

Here’s the official TTB definition of Rye Whiskey.


Chapter 4 – Class and Type Designation


CLASS GENERAL CLASS DEFINITION TYPE GENERAL TYPE DEFINITION
WHISKY² Spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to whisky and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) RYE WHISKY³ Whisky produced at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent rye and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.
RYE MALT WHISKY³ Whisky produced at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent malted rye and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.
STRAIGHT RYE WHISKY³ · Rye whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more · “Straight Rye Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight rye whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state.
STRAIGHT RYE MALT WHISKY³ · Rye malt whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more · “Straight Rye Malt Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight rye malt whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state.
WHISKY DISTILLED FROM RYE MASH¹ Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent rye and stored in used oak containers.
WHISKY DISTILLED FROM RYE MALT MASH¹ Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent malted rye and stored in used oak containers.
BLENDED RYE WHISKY OR RYE WHISKY – A BLEND³ Blended whisky containing not less than 51% on a proof gallon basis (excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials*) straight rye whisky.
BLENDED RYE MALT WHISKY OR RYE MALT WHISKY – A BLEND³ Blended whisky containing not less than 51% on a proof gallon basis (excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials*) straight rye malt whisky.
A BLEND OF STRAIGHT RYE WHISKIES OR BLENDED STRAIGHT RYE WHISKIES³ A blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of straight rye whiskies.
A BLEND OF STRAIGHT RYE MALT WHISKIES OR BLENDED STRAIGHT RYE MALT WHISKIES³ A blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of straight rye malt whiskies.
¹Sufficient as class and type designation 
²Sufficient as class and type designation ONLY for whiskies made by: 
--Blending two or more specific types of whiskies, e.g., a blend of rye whisky and corn whisky should be designated “Whisky” 
OR 
--Treating with harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials* a specific type of whisky not customarily so treated, e.g., 
bourbon whisky treated with caramel should be designated “Whisky” 
³nSufficient as class and type designation for whisky of this type produced in the U.S

Whether you like your rye whiskey in a cocktail, on the rocks to simply neat, now is the time to go out and support this uniquely American product. (Responsibly of course.)

Related Story 
Distilled Spirits Council Announces Support for New US, Mexico & Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA)

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