Rye whiskey is in vogue, but that's not news. What's news is that rye whiskey is still in vogue.
Five years after rye began its comeback, it has become arguably even more popular, as distilleries of all size continue jumping aboard the craze. Though much of the best work is being done by regional craft distilleries, the most telling sign of its long-term viability could be the big boys' interest: last year, Bulleit released its first rye, and this month, Knob Creek has followed suit.
Most observers trace rye's resurgence to the classic cocktail movement, and the fact that many whiskey drinks — like the Manhattan — were never meant to be made with softer spirits like bourbon. But as bourbon's dominance grew — and it is easily this country's most popular whiskey — we fell out of the rye habit. Yet rye's renewed appeal is plain: spicy and bold, it is to whiskey what India pale ale has been to craft beer, offering robustness that speaks to America's increasingly braver and savvier palates. And in cocktails, it has enough character to stand out among other ingredients.
Though Knob Creek's rye is admirable — balanced, approachable and a reasonable buy at a suggested $36 — the most interesting takes are coming from small craft distillers like McKenzie Rye, made by Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York.
Brian McKenzie, president and owner of Finger Lakes, said he knew he wanted to attempt a rye when starting his business in 2008.
"It's a product I've just always loved," McKenzie said. "You get more herbal notes — some mints, some Christmas spice, some orange peel and cardamom and stuff like that. It's in the (rye) grain itself, and once the whiskey interacts with the oak, it comes out."
McKenzie finishes his rye in sherry barrels, which lend a surprising softness and mild fruit tones that mingle with the grain's spice. He discovered the technique by accident, initially seeing the sherry barrel as a holding vessel that wouldn't impart much flavor. It turned out, however, that he came up with a fascinating spirit all its own.
Though McKenzie Rye was released in 2010, a few years after the first wave of comeback ryes — think Templeton and High West — McKenzie wasn't worried he would be late.
"We saw the little boom going on in the category, and even though we were a little later than some, we thought it would continue on," he said. "In the metro markets, it has been our best seller by far."
Which just proves that with rye, it's never too late.