Last month I went down to Mount Vernon, Va., the home of George Washington. But I wasn’t touring the mansion and gardens, where busloads of visitors were milling around. Instead I drove further down the road to the distillery. Yes, aside from being a farmer, general, and our first president, George Washington was a distiller of whiskey.
Mind you the original distillery ceased production in 1814. But 10 years ago, thanks to the Distilled Spirits Council, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, and generous donors, the distillery was restored and has since been making whiskey using Washington's actual mash bill: 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, 5 percent malted barley. Like the rest of the Mount Vernon estate, the distillery is a colonial construction. The workers are dressed in period garb, and they use traditional methods for distillation. (The whiskey itself is for sale in the Mount Vernon gift shop.)
As the mash bill indicates, the whiskey our first president was making was rye, the most common type of whiskey in Washington's time. (It was also clear, unaged rye, because no one could wait two years for the stuff.) As Reid Mitenbuler points out in Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey, "The grain grows well where other grains don't, particularly in parts of eastern states like Maryland, New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania." But as corn proliferated across the frontier, it replaced rye as the more popular base for whiskey. Then, beginning in the early 2000s, rye made a comeback.
In part it's because rye is a "flavor grain" added to most bourbon brands, says Mitenbuler, "to help balance corn's sweetness with rye's spiciness." In American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, author Clay Risen says, "Rye's strong pepper and fruit notes makes it an obvious member in any cocktail maven's starting lineup, either as the base for once-again favorites like Sazeracs and Manhattans or as a substitute for bourbon in, say, a mint julep."
This brings us to the cocktail renaissance that, according to writer Robert Messenger, started around 2004. "It began in our high-end restaurants," Messenger writes in the Weekly Standard. "A large percentage of profits in such restaurants comes not from the food but from the beverages that accompany it…. Just as these restaurants were educating an urban audience to eat frisée and sweetbreads and to drink Argentine Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, so they eventually began to encourage some chef-like flourishes behind their bars."
Messenger cites other factors as well, such as the swing-dance revival (and the movie Swingers) and the labors of Dale DeGroff, who crafted classic cocktail menus for places like the Rainbow Room. "A skilled professional bartender, DeGroff was suddenly an archivist and inventor as well," writes Messenger. "He had to track down old recipes and create modern equivalents for long-defunct ingredients." In turn, DeGroff's disciples continued to resurrect those pre-Prohibition era drinks, many of which required rye.
"For decades, there were only two brands of rye on the market—Old Overholt and Jim Beam rye," Messenger pointed out. "Both were a perfectly acceptable base for a Manhattan, yet at this present moment I have four bottles of rye on my shelves and nary a Beam or Overholt in sight." Keep in mind Messenger made this observation in 2009. That year, based on analysis by the Distilled Spirits Council, rye whiskey volume stood at 88,000 cases. In 2016, it was 775,000 cases. That’s an increase of 778 percent. In terms of supplier revenue, that's 900 percent growth—from $15 million in 2009 to almost $160 million in 2016.
"It really has been amazing to witness the explosion in the American Straight Rye category," said the bartending legend Tony Abou-Ganim. "When I started bartending in 1980 at the Brass Rail in Port Huron, Mich., if someone requested rye whiskey they were referring to a Canadian blended whisky," he told me. "After moving to California in 1985 you would rarely see a bottle of Straight Rye behind any bar and if you did it was most likely Old Overholt. Not many people even knew what Straight American Rye whiskey was, including those of us working behind the bar at the time."
In 1998, Abou-Ganim was hired by Steve Wynn to oversee the cocktail progam for the Bellagio in Las Vegas. "There were three rye whiskeys to be found in Las Vegas—Wild Turkey, Jim Beam Yellow Label, and Old Overholt—and there was little if any demand for them. We stocked all three."
But, "as bartenders, including myself, were exposed to more education and information on the products and brands we were serving our guests," said Abou-Ganim, "we began to better understand how to utilize these products in cocktails, both classics and twists, as well as explain their nuances to our guests."
"Americans were rediscovering craft whiskey," said D.C. bartender and restaurateur Derek Brown. "All of a sudden you couldn't make an Old Fashioned without rye where bourbon was the common call before. I also remember Thomas Handy Rye winning Best Whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011. That seemed like a huge win for rye because it toppled Scotch."
How long will the boom continue? "I've been at it long enough to have experienced our guests not having any interest in the old [Pappy] Van Winkle whiskies to giving up their first born to get a bottle," recalled Abou-Ganim. "I remember when we couldn't give IPA's away—now it's the hottest style of beer. With the selection of rye whiskey offering's expanding at a feverish pace, I see no shortage of eager imbibers ready and willing to consume them. The great thing, and why I feel very confident that the increased interest in rye whiskey is not a fad is that the proof is in the bottle. Rye whiskey is fantastic."
Brown sees more of a leveling off in demand: "Rye can't sustain this rate of growth. As it is, we know that much of the rye is coming from the same industrial distillers and a few pied piper roving distillers. That doesn't mean it's not good, but it appears to be a much larger industry than it really is. I remember a friend calling me from a boutique spirits store in New York and asking me what rye he should get. As he named off the names, I was like: Those are all from the same distillery!" (This sensitive subject was previously covered by Eric Felten in the Daily Beast.)
Nevertheless, Brown insisted, "What comes when it evens out will be even better. We'll see people stay put and make the best whiskey they can. Fad distilleries and charlatans will likely sell their brands and then watch them fade away. Good rye will always be popular. That's the way it should be."
Our first president would likely agree.