Why Rye and Why Now: 3 Reasons Rye is on the Rise

Nov. 16, 2016

Don’t call it a comeback. Unless it is. And the rye whiskey category’s meteoric rise over the last five years is indeed a comeback.

Sales are up more than 530% since 2009, from 88,000 cases to over a half million cases in 2015, the largest volume increase for any spirit category currently tracked, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (Discus). Annual retail sales are totaling close to $300 million. The spicy spirit is burning so hot right now that it is stealing shelf space and menu placements from its overseas Irish and Scotch cousins.

So what’s fueling rye’s storybook revival? And why did it fall out of favor in the first place? Here’s a look at the how and why of rye’s renaissance.


Flavor is Back in Favor

No one is exactly sure why rye whiskey fell out of favor in the US, but many speculate that Prohibition had a large role in its decline. By the time Prohibition was repealed, the American palate had changed. Sweeter drinks rose in popularity, as did milder spirits such as Irish and Canadian whisky. Lighter clear base spirits like vodka also gained dollars as America’s collective taste buds moved away from bold and headed towards all things neutral; like light American lagers, white bread and TV dinners. As a result, whiskey producers softened their recipes to keep up with trend and cut out rye from the mash bill.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and that same bold bite is bringing rye whiskey back to our attention. Rye whiskey is an intensely flavorful spirit. It is rough around the edges, has bite, spice and attitude. In a young whiskey it comes through as crisp greens or tart apples. Once allowed time to mellow in the barrel, the spirit develops more of a dark praline complexity, but the spice is still there. Just as consumers are looking for more pungently hopped pale ales and tongue-buckling sours, they’re also seeking out spirits and cocktails that provide a punch. Luckily, bartenders have their back.

Thank Bartenders for Bringing it Back

Bartenders and mixologists always seem to root for the underdogthose misplaced, misunderstood and underappreciated spirits that need a little love and attention to shine. Back in the late-90s and early 2000s, rye whiskey was that underdog. But as the classic cocktail movement swept across American’s drinking culture, many forgotten spirits became cool again, including rye.

Mixologists found rye’s complexity and fortitude held strong in cocktails far better than other brown spirits. The best example of this is in the classic Manhattan, where rye’s bark and bite don’t get muffled by the sweet vermouth. Realizing that rye simply made great drinks, bartenders began to use it more and more, in everything from Sazeracs and Old Fashioneds to Brooklyns, Red Hooks and Boulevardiers. Before long rye cocktails were appearing on drink menus in bunches, introducing the spirit to curious consumers who then went out and purchased bottles at retail.

America is Ready for Rye

Prior to Prohibition, rye was the most popular grain American farmers distilled with regularity. It is easy to grow, strong and resilient. Even George Washington grew rye and distilled with it at his Mount Vernon property.  Prohibition destroyed this industry, and for a long while neither farmers nor whiskey producers put much stock in rye. That has changed, and now both look at rye not just as a flash trend, but as a long-term movement and opportunity.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, American farmers planted 1.76 million acres for the 2016-17 season, the biggest area since 1989 and a 12-percent year-over-year increase. They did so largely because of the demand from distilleries who are giving more warehouse space and line extensions to the rye whiskey category. From the largest Kentucky distilleries to the smallest craft producers, everyone is adding a rye product to their whiskey portfolio.

How many rye whiskeys do you have available? Ready to add more? Contact your Breakthru Beverage Sales Consultant to explore our entire rye whiskey portfolio.

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