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The brown spirits category continues to see segments rise and fall in popularity. This month, Ian Buxton looks at rye, which has surprised many with its recent return to form.

Has rye been rescued from the bottom shelf?

Has rye been rescued from the bottom shelf?

It may just be the greatest comeback in the history of the drinks industry. Yes, rye "coulda been a contender", but now it’s off the ropes and back punching its considerable weight. Just a decade ago virtually everyone – including most of the people who made it - had either forgotten the original American whiskey or turned their back on it as irredeemably blue-collar. It was a faded heavyweight; the trailer trash of whiskeys; an embarrassing hangover from pre-Prohibition days.

And, sales continued to dwindle as vodka stole the limelight. Just ten years ago, in 2005, Jim Beam, which still produced both Old Overholt and Jim Beam ryes, shipped just 32,000 cases of rye. By contrast, it shipped 3.9m cases of Bourbon that year.

By 2006, the few distilleries still making rye did so on perhaps one or two days a year to satisfy the residual demand from an aging pool of drinkers that was, quite literally, dying. USDA records indicate that US rye crop production hit a high of nearly 84m bushels in 1918 and bottomed in 2007 at just over 6m bushels.

But now it’s back, and in its best health for years. As figures recently released by DISCUS reveal, there’s no doubt that rye is currently the hottest thing on the US whisk(e)y scene. According to DISCUS, rye whiskey volumes have grown more than 500% in the last five years. Since 2009, volumes have increased 536% from 88,000 nine-litre cases to 561,000 in 2014. In value terms, that translates into a 609% jump to around US$106m in supplier revenues in 2014.

David Ozgo, chief economist at DISCUS, said the rise represents approximately $300m in retail sales. "The growth of rye whiskey has been phenomenal, given that, as late as 2000, rye volumes were virtually non-existent with only a handful of brands in the US market," said Ozgo. "By 2014, there were over 100 brands. While it still represents a small share of the overall American whiskey category, its growth is skyrocketing."

Just to put that $300m in context, Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey revenues hit $2.7bn in 2014. It’s an impressive rate of growth, nonetheless, and until recently largely ignored by the larger producers who are now scrambling to come to the party.

So why rye?

Some attribute it to the Mad Men TV show; some to the reconstruction of George Washington’s historic distillery on the Mount Vernon estate; some to restless cocktail mixologists looking for whiskey with a pronounced flavour and some put rye’s revival down to the resurgence of craft distilling, especially in the US. In truth, all probably play a part. Back in Washington’s time historians estimate there were about 10,000 distilleries nation-wide and though his Mount Vernon venture (managed incidentally by a Scot) would today be styled a ‘craft’ operation, records show that he was selling as many as 5,000 cases by the end of the 18th Century. Sadly, the distillery eventually burnt down and only re-opened when it was rebuilt in 2001.

Prohibition proved a devastating blow to rye’s fortunes. As well as being technically more demanding to produce than other styles, distillers found that US drinkers’ tastes had changed during the years of the Great Experiment. They tended to prefer lighter Canadian styles or to stick with the blended Scotch whiskies that had somehow found their way past the authorities and, while Bourbon responded with subtler expressions, the spicier and fuller-bodied rye proved less adaptable to changing tastes. Drop by drop, it faded from the collective consciousness, ending up on the bottom shelf and slowly collecting dust on the back bar.

If the recreation of Washington’s distillery piqued interest, then the Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds and Manhattans enjoyed by Don Draper and friends in TV’s Mad Men were greeted as old friends by the bartending community, especially in the US and at the trendier end of London’s cocktail scene. Mixologists have keenly embraced the authenticity of these classics and have relished the impact of the spicier rye style.

While the revival may have started - and has been driven by the boutique distilling movement - it has now quite definitely gone mainstream, with major producers launching ryes at a furious pace. From Heaven Hills Pikesville to Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve (a name previously synonymous with Bourbon) new rye whiskies are crowding the shelves.

From Canada, Beam Suntory and Diageo - the latter's Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye targets the rising consumer trend in North America for "pre-Prohibition era cocktails", says a spokesman - have joined the scramble.

But, perhaps the most interesting - and novel - sign of rye’s growing influence, though, also comes from Diageo with the launch of Johnnie Walker Select Casks Rye Finish. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, one may well conclude.

By now, we should be writing rye’s valediction. But, today, with the world’s number one Scotch whisky borrowing some of rye’s new-found glamour, we’re witnessing a remarkable catch up by the rye.

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