Rye Whiskey Continues to Soar in Popularity

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Once a “dead drink” – a whiskey largely passed over by post-prohibition drinkers as inferior to its sweeter cousin Bourbon – rye whiskey has been making an incredible comeback in the past few years as the trend for classic cocktails has brought rye back to prominence.

In fact, US sales of the spirit have increased six fold in the last six years, from slightly over $15 million in supplier revenues in 2009 to more than $106 million in 2014. That translates to about $300 million in retail sales. And it’s not just Americans leading the trend. “It’s now a global phenomenon,” DISCUS Vice President Frank Coleman told NBC News. “Bartenders in London are crazy to get their hands on American Rye.”

The overall whiskey market has been dominant in the US for the past several years, with sales of whiskey besting the performance of tequila, vodka, gin and all other key categories of spirits. But rye’s rise has been nothing short of stratospheric. “Rye whiskey should be America’s historic spirit,” says distiller Dave Pickerell. “Rye is a gloriously spicy grain. It’s big and full-bodied. It’s what you want to graduate to if you’re an American whiskey drinker.”

Rye has a good claim on the label “America’s historic spirit.” When the colonists threw their tea overboard it wasn’t just tea that went; it was the British way of life as well, and at that time that meant rum. But Americans weren’t ready to quit drinking altogether. With rye adapting well to the climate of the new colonies, there were thousands of rye distilleries up and down the east coast by 1810. George Washington himself made a good living making rye whiskey at Mt Vernon. Now Rye is back, restored to its rightful place in classic cocktails like the Manhattan.

At times, the rising demand for rye whiskey has caught producers off guard. Wild Turkey, for example, essentially ran out of its rye whiskey at one point a few years ago. Now with big brands like Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Bulleit getting in on the rye action (and more than a hundred craft distilleries across the country producing rye) there’s not likely to be another shortage anytime soon. But can rye maintain its popularity? Pickerell certainly thinks so. “Whiskey is exploding,” he says. “So it’s not about carving the pie. It’s about making more pie.”

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