Prior to Prohibition, rye was the most popular grain American farmers distilled with regularity (including George Washington). Prohibition, however, ushered in bootlegged Canadian whiskies. While these still featured a majority rye-based mash bill, Canadian rye is much softer. The American palate adapted, and after Prohibition was repealed, rye took a back seat to sweater, smoother grains, such as corn. Bourbon, thus, took over as America’s most popular whiskey.
But, times are changing. Rye is surging back (riding the building tidal wave of all whiskey, really) and is reacquainting itself as the primary grain. In Jim Murray’s 2016 Whisky Bible, the top two overall world whiskies were rye whiskies – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye and Pikesville Straight Rye.
What distinguishes a simple rye whiskey from “straight” rye? Any rye whiskey must contain a mash bill of at least 51% rye. Straight rye is distilled at no more than 160 proof and stored at no more than 125 proof in charred new oak barrels. Finally, it must be aged at least 2 years and contain no added flavor, color, or additional spirit or blend. 27 CFR § 5.22(b)(1)(iii).