A History of Rye in the US
By David Furer
As seen on Distilling.com
Part 1 link: https://distilling.com/distillermagazine/a-history-of-rye-in-the-us-part-i/
Part 2 link: https://distilling.com/distillermagazine/a-history-of-rye-in-the-us-part-2/
Excerpts below, read the entire story by following the links above to Distilling.com.
Virginia lays claim to the birthplace of American distilled spirits as the first batch of whiskey, albeit from corn, was documented to have been produced as early as 1620 by English settler George Thorpe near Jamestown. Rye’s presence and dominance in what later became the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia was in great part due to socioeconomic factors and geography. In Europe, wheat was a staple meant for the tables of the affluent, whereas rye was a poor person’s staple. Immigrants to the new land in search of a better life were mostly poor, bringing with them what they knew best. “The original settlers from the Germanic areas grew rye for bread and whiskey,” said whiskey historian John Lipman. He cites the ship Mary Hope which had sailed in 1710 to Philadelphia carrying the Oberholtzers (née Overholt) and Böhmes (née Beam) to the New World as a lineage point.
Rye’s popularity in the new country grew out of necessity, prompted by the lack of Caribbean molasses for rum distillation at commercial coastal distilleries — a consequence of English hostility, whose navy maintained control of the Atlantic Ocean — and neither was it a drink for patriots. By the late 1700’s, there were thousands of small grain distilleries each in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. Corn was native throughout, though more widespread and easier to grow in the south. Barley lacked the hardiness required for a staple crop, and rye was much easier to grow.
Recently retired President George Washington was considering a gentlemanly retirement at his Mount Vernon, Virginia estate when his farm manager James Anderson in 1797 proposed growing rye and corn for the distillation of whiskey. He granted the Scotsman dispensation to furnish the new operation with five copper stills, boilers, tubs and wooden troughs; by 1798 the distillery was in operation.
Between 1810 and 1840 it’s estimated 14,000 to 20,000 distilleries, licensed and otherwise, operated in the young United States. Most of its population was northerly with rail transport yet to be developed. But once railroads were built, it was discovered that the rye whiskey known as Monongahela, which arrived to its populated coastal destinations quickly and a yellowish hue, it tasted better when darker brown. Thus began the conscious warehousing of distillates in barrels with prices commensurate for the capital invested to do so.
The Civil War helped spread the sweeter whiskies of the south to the rye drinkers who prevailed in it. Jumping ahead some decades, eastern distillers opening after Prohibition still favored rye over corn. Kentucky distilleries with cheaper and more plentiful arable land were poised to build large facilities to garner economy of scale on the back of an extensive and well-financed rail network. Added factors included the taste for bootlegged Canadian whiskeys, and the fewer regulations imposed upon Kentucky operations after WW2. In southwest Pennsylvania there were over 100 distilleries operating before Prohibition, with Overholt distillery at Broad Ford, the largest rye distillery after Prohibition, closing in 1951.
From the end of Prohibition until 2006, rye was in steady decline, with 150,000 cases of rye sold in the United States compared to 14.7 million cases of bourbon.
The reemergence of cocktail culture — first in San Francisco, then New York and Chicago — spurred the rebirth of rye whiskey, growing 20% in 2006 and 30% in 2007, and 600% between 2009 and 2015. Presaging this was the development of the Mount Vernon Distillery, a project initiated with the support of DISCUS, which follows a mash bill (borne out by George Washington’s ledgers) of 60% rye, 35% corn, 5% malted barley.
David Furer has worked since 1986 in the adult beverage industries of Europe, Asia and his native USA. He has been involved in communications and marketing of wine, spirits and beer, along with the occasional jaunt into foods and cigars. He is a co-organizer and will be the host of March 2019's Climate Change Wine Leadership Conference in Porto, Portugal. Furer is a regular columnist for France’s Sommeliers International and the creator of high-concept alcohol events. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Stories about Virginia Rye Whiskey, its makers and supporting organizations and individuals. as well as related distilled spirits industry news.