Why Rye? Inside the 9-Bottle Bar’s Whiskey of Choice

published Mar 19, 2014
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Rye whiskey is having a remarkable comeback. After many years of relative obscurity, domestic demand for rye is surging, and the reason for its somewhat sudden and unanticipated popularity is the same reason I’ve included it in The 9-Bottle Bar: a good rye whiskey mixes superbly in cocktails.

After briefly introducing all nine of the bottles in our arsenal last week, we’re now taking an in-depth look at what makes rye whiskey a useful addition to any small-yet-mighty home bar.

What is rye whiskey?

Much like with its close cousin in the whiskey family, bourbon, the United States government strictly defines what can be called a rye whiskey. Production of the spirit must adhere to a set of criteria, including that it be made from a grain recipe composed at least 51 percent rye grain and aged in new charred-oak barrels. (On the flip side, bourbons must begin with a grain recipe—also known as a mash bill—of at least 51 percent corn.)

There are ryes on the market aged in barrels for as little as a few months to as long as decades and beyond. Some bottles carry age statements, many don’t. But if you see the term “straight rye whisk(e)y” on a label, you know the spirit’s been barrel-aged for at least two years. And aging is important because a great deal of an aged whiskey’s flavor and typically all of its color come for the interaction between the wood and the initially crystal-clear distillate.

(Some low-grade whiskeys are caramel-colored to look older than they are and have no place in the 9-Bottle Bar.)

Why rye and not bourbon?

Now is a good time to mention that I’m a big fan of bourbon. Love the stuff. I can certainly appreciate why it, too, has enjoyed such a big bump in popularity lately. Any home bar, whether very extensive or very small, ought to have an American whiskey of some kind for mixing in cocktails.

In the highly selective (and highly subjective) world of 9-Bottle Bar land, rye whiskey narrowly edges out bourbon for that coveted spot. (On the other hand, I prefer drinking bourbon neat more than rye.)

The reason has to do with flavor. Because they’re both barrel-aged and grain-based, bourbon and rye do share several broader characteristics like notes of toasted wood, vanilla, and caramel. The prominence of rye grain in a rye whiskey’s mash bill tends to push the end product toward a drier, spicier profile in comparison to the more fruity, banana-bread sweetness of corn-driven bourbon. The more delicious, complex rye whiskeys on the market can present flavors of tobacco, leather, and baking spice. Rye is punchy. It has backbone.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Rye in cocktails

These elements contribute greatly to a cocktail’s structure and depth. Each ingredient in a good, well-balanced cocktail plays a role, from adding sweetness, bitterness or acidity, to enhancing texture, aroma, and mouthfeel.

For me, rye pulls more weight in certain drinks that I love than an equal measure of bourbon does. In a Manhattan, for instance, I would rather have rye do its thing, lending spice and bite, and rely on the sweet vermouth to round and soften the drink with its inherent sweetness and richness.