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Whisky 101

The Chemistry of Whisky: Rye

Rye | Rye Whiskey

January 28, 2022

All the secrets of Rye in the Whisk(e)y production. 

We talked about the secrets of barley and the possibilities of experimenting with different types of grains for whisky production. Now it is the turn of rye, an ingredient much loved for the distinctive spicy notes it gives to this spirit.

The History of Rye Whiskey

For centuries, rye has been a popular crop in northern and eastern Europe. The reason is that it can easily grow in poor soils and, in addition, can survive the coldest winters. Nevertheless, it is in the United States of America that rye became the core grain ingredient for the production of whiskey.

Over the past few decades, the public has shown a renewed interest in this product, seeing a real Rye-volution (pardon the pun). Even in Scotland, the land of malted barley whiskies, distilleries are taking an interest in the rich flavours that rye can give to this spirit. In this regard, Arbikie is the first distillery in Scotland to release a Single Grain Scotch Whisky made from rye after 100 years. 

However, the path that led Rye Whiskey to be so beloved has not always been a smooth one.

rye scotch whisky

Where everything begins

It all started in Pennsylvania and Maryland. After the American Revolution, the amount of rum available was scarce. But Scottish and Irish immigrants soon found a solution: produce whisky locally. But there was one tiny issue. Barley was ill-suited to the local climate. Rye, however, thrived, and it immediately became a suitable substitute in the distillation process.

Thus, for a long period, both Maryland and Pennsylvania were seen as the most crafty producers of Rye Whiskey. Soon, Rye Whiskey became an American favourite and production ramped up rapidly. But prohibition put an abrupt end to this flourishing industry.

That, followed by two world wars, made the comeback of the quintessential American whisky a challenging business.

rye crops

Return of the Rye

In the years that followed, with the economic recovery, just as production was coming back into full swing, Americans’ tastes changed, preferring other drinks such as vodka, gin, bourbon and scotch.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Rye Whisky made its triumphant return with the cocktail era, and once again, people began to appreciate its strong character. 

So, what exactly is considered Rey Whisky?

What is Rye Whisky

For all parts of the world, Rye Whisky is ultimately a grain whisky distilled from, indeed, rye. However, in America, there are more restrictive rules in this regard. To produce a true American Rye Whisky on US soil, at least 51% of the grains used in the composition must be rye.

But why do you generally find Rye Whiskies distilled from a mix of cereals?

Rye Whisky Production


To be fair, rye is probably one of the most difficult grains to work with for whisky distillation. During fermentation, rye becomes sticky and clumpy due to its high starch content. The result? Clogged mash tuns with consequent outflows. In comparison, all other cereals are a piece of cake. 

This is why other types of grain are generally added during the process so that everything runs more smoothly. In the most literal sense!

Flavours and aromas of Rye Whisky

As for flavours, Rye Whiskey is generally rougher than others. This distillate with a pale amber colour, in fact, is very bold and full-bodied compared to other American whiskeys. The taste is typically spicy, with hints of pepper and cinnamon. The higher the percentage of rye, the drier the whisky will be.

Moreover, it goes well with other ingredients and for this reason, it is the favourite whiskey for the preparation of cocktails and long drinks, such as Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Boulevardier.

Now that you know all about the most iconic American Whiskey ever, go ahead and enjoy a fine glass!

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