Rye Resilient As Ever

In the last few years, I have spent a decent amount of time exploring whiskeys of all sorts. As I’ve mentioned countless times before on Dish + Drink, my preferred spirit is whiskey and my whiskey of choice is rye.

Usually when I tell people this, they are surprised to find that my passion lies in rye, rather than scotch or bourbon. While I’m still developing my palette, I can say that it’s mostly because rye doesn’t burn for me. It isn’t sweet or smoky, but instead just a little bit spicy.

I’m not the only one intrigued by rye’s unique flavor and I’m certainly not the only one interested in its history. In fact, today rye isn’t nearly as much of an underdog as it may seem.

To understand this, we have to go back in time a bit.

In the late 18th century, distilleries in Pennsylvania and Maryland were churning out tons of rye—the spirit was a favorite nationwide. Even after the Whiskey Rebellion spurned the production of bourbon in Kentucky, rye was no underdog.

But what interests me most is how and why it became an afterthought. Up until recently, rye wasn’t finding itself in a conversation on its own about whiskey without a mention of bourbon first. It seems to me that a decent amount of discussions about whiskey still go this way.

So, why did it disappear from the forefront?

As it turns out, Prohibition is to blame. When the era destroyed all possibilities for the distilling businesses, bootleg Canadian whisky became synonymous with rye and so by the time Prohibition was over, rye was no longer in vogue. It was considered cheap crap consumed by old, lonely men. Instead of hopes for a revival, it all but disappeared.

But Prohibition ended well over half a century ago. So why has it taken so long for the nation’s “original whiskey” to return to the spotlight?

Well, for one, even after Prohibition ended, the government subsidized corn during World War II, which didn’t make it easier to distill rye. When discussing the revival of rye, Business Insider mentions this, as well as James Bond’s famous martini, may have contributed to the fall of sales in all sorts of whiskeys. Fans of 007 drank vodka and gin instead.

What’s more, though, Business Insider makes no mention of shows like Mad Men. The article states that the Manhattan has huge weight when it comes to why people choose rye in bars, but I’d venture that Don Draper’s crew has something to do with this. The Old Fashioned is once again a household drink and I can’t go anywhere without someone commenting on the link between ordering an Old Fashioned and being a fan of Mr. Draper’s.

I suppose it comes as no surprise that pop culture imitates life and vice versa, so my question is this: Now that Mad Men is over, will rye once again fall by the wayside?

The Imbibe Magazine story I linked to earlier ponders if it isn’t too soon to declare a full rye revival. It’s been six years since the story’s publication and I have to say that it seems a revival is in full swing, with our without Draper.