Generation rye

American whiskey is a product that struggles on these shores to gain the prestige that we accord Scotch. But that doesn't stop us quaffing the stuff - Australia is the largest market for bourbon whiskey outside of the US.

Despite bourbon's popular appeal, rye whiskey – America's drier, spicier and often more complex dram – is a relatively small player on the local whisk(e)y scene. But times are a-changin' thanks to bars and bartenders who are passionate about the stuff. Its robust character and classic cocktail pedigree also makes it the perfect dram to enjoy as the cooler weather sets in.

So here's a quick guide to set you in good stead to taking bourbon's hipper older brother out on the town.

America's original spirit

When Scottish and Irish settlers arrived in New England, they already had a love for whisky ingrained in their cultures. They also thought they'd finally escaped the dreaded excise man and would be able to distill in peace.

It wasn't all plain sailing, however; they found that their preferred distilling grain, barley, didn't grow too well in the new climate and had to resort to using rye which, though more difficult to distill, could at least be found in abundance.

Pennsylvania and Virginia became the heartland for rye whiskey production and even George Washington got in on the act with his own distillery in Mount Vernon, Virginia turning sizable profits to the tune of over $1000 in 1789. It didn't stop Washington from issuing a "whiskey tax" in 1791 to help repay the burgeoning nation's debts following the Revolutionary War.

The tax resulted in the "Whiskey Insurrection" which, though quashed by government troops, saw many distillers move west into Kentucky and Tennessee (today America's whiskey capitols) to be further once again from the tax man.

Mash bill

So what, exactly, is rye whiskey? The most important point here is the recipe of grains – called the "mash bill". In order to label a whiskey as a "rye" in the US you need to have a mash consisting of at least 51 per cent rye grain – the balance can be made up with corn, barley or wheat.

The grains are milled, fermented and distilled before being aged in new charred American oak barrels for a minimum of two years, though most bottlings are generally at least twice this age.

Canadian whisky is often referred to as "rye" but is not considered such in the US because it contains less than the required 51 per cent of rye grain.

Cocktail pedigree

Not only was rye America's original whiskey, it's also the original cocktail spirit. Many cocktails that are made with bourbon today were conceived with rye, including popular tipples such as the Whiskey Sour, Sazerac, Old Fashioned and Manhattan.

I suggest you pull a stool up to a well-stocked bar and pay a few of these tried and tested drops a re-visit with rye. Failing that, get creative at home with the Red Hook cocktail below. Named after a neighbourhood in the New York borough of Brooklyn, this delicious rye mix is a modern riff on the Manhattan and Brooklyn cocktails. It's credited to American bartender Enzo Errico.


50ml straight rye whiskey
20ml Punt e Mes (a bittered sweet vermouth found in good bottle stores)
5ml maraschino liqueur (an Italian dry cherry liqueur)


Add all ingredients into a mixing glass or shaker. Fill with ice and stir until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail glass and garnish if you must with a cherry.