Rye whiskey’s transition from an American staple to a relic started with the loss of rye fields during prohibition, and continued with the rise of imported liquors. Truly an American invention, American rye whiskey is only made with American-grown, native rye grains as its primary mash.
When the federal government imposed a tax on distilled liquors during the 1790s, American citizens erupted in outrage over their beloved American Rye Whiskey, going so far as to initiate the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. President George Washington himself amassed militia members to put down the rebellion in what is considered the United State’s first test in law enforcement. Interestingly, George Washington maintained a still at his Mount Vernon estate that he used to produce rye whiskey. At the time, rye was the most popular grain in the eastern United States for producing whiskey. When Prohibition took effect in 1919, distillers in the southern states learned to make bourbon in the cornfields, and Canadian versions of whiskey incorporated mixed grains. American rye fields declined in number and, soon, American rye whiskey was resigned to a part of history.
Today, a revival of small-scale rye whiskey producers use traditional distilling methods, but many continue to rely on imported rye grains or genetically modified rye varieties because sufficient American-grown, native rye grain is unavailable. By law, rye whiskey must contain at least 51% rye, but there are no regulations concerning the origin or the variety of rye. A small but growing number of American producers adhere to the traditional method of aging rye in un-charred oak barrels and using only American-grown, native rye varieties. The resulting product is lighter with spicier caramel notes and hints of orange peel, cardamom, mint, and butterscotch.