May 2016: American Straight Rye Whiskey

American Straight Rye Whiskey, May 2016, by Stephen Netherton

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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 The American palate adapted, and after Prohibition was repealed, rye took a back seat to sweater, smoother grains, such as corn.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 whiskeys – 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).

Featured Cocktail:

  • Name: Sazerac
  • Ingredients: Straight rye whiskey, absinthe, Peychaud’s bitters, simple syrup, lemon peel
  • Recipe: Rinse a chilled old fashion glass with absinthe, discard the remainder, and set aside. In a separate old fashion glass, fill with ice and add one teaspoon of simple syrup and 5 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and 2 oz. of straight rye whiskey. Stir and strain into the chilled glass. Twist and squeeze the lemon peel over the glass. Rub the rim with the peel and drop into the glass.

Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey

  • Bottle 1:
    • Name: Pikesville Straight Rye
    • Distillery: Heaven Hill (KY)
    • Proof: 110
    • Mash Bill: N/A
    • Price: $51.99
    • Purchase location: R&J Discount Liquor
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Dusty cocoa with oaky smoke
      • Palate: Dry and spicy, with honeyed rye and cloves
      • Finish: Soft vanilla and baking spices
    • Why this bottle is featured: Named the second best overall whiskey in Jim Murray’s 2016 Whisky Bible, I feel that Pikesville best features the distinctness of the rye grain.

Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey

Whistlepig Old World Straight Rye Whiskey

  • Bottle 3:
    • Name: Whistlepig 12-year “Old World” Straight Rye Whiskey
    • Distillery: Distilled at MGP (Indiana), bottled by Whistlepig (VT)
    • Proof: 86
    • Mash Bill: 95% rye, 5% malted barley
    • Price: $125.98
    • Purchase location:
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Soft dill, mint, evergreen, wood spices, chocolate, dried berries, vanilla, spiced honey, pastry, citrus peel
      • Palate: Soft on the approach and then prickly rye spices, dry oak, honey, vanilla, caramel, dark chocolate, dried fruit
      • Finish: Seasoned oak, rich vanilla, honey, lingering rye spice
    • Why this bottle is featured: This is the result of an aging experiment with straight rye and premium European oak casks. The rye is “finished” in Madeira (Portuguese wine), Sauternes (French wine), and Port (Portuguese wine) casks, then blended back together in a particular ratio.


  • Bottle 4:
    • Name: Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
    • Distillery: Emile Pernot Distillery (France)
    • Proof: 130
    • Mash Bill (if available): Burgendy-grape spirit base with select botanicals (including Spanish green anise seed and Provencal fennel) and local terroir grown wormwood.
    • Price: $80.12
    • Purchase location:
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Fresh, yet slightly briny and spicy with lightly mentholated and cocoa notes.
      • Palate: Intense and spicily piquant, with round herbal flavors.
      • Finish: Cooling with anise and fennel seed.
    • Why this bottle is featured: Featured in the Sazerac cocktail. This is also considered to be a classic absinthe, containing premium wormwood.

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