A demise of rye and its rebirth

Talk about Tennessee, American and Rye Whiskey here.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Jan 04, 2007 1:20 pm

Gary,
Interesting thoughts as always. Here is something to think about though. You claim bourbon was making headway against rye before prohibition. We see rye versions of famous bourbon brands, but do we see bourbon versions of famous rye brands? Is there an Old Overholt Bourbon? Mount (Mt.) Vernon Bourbon? If bourbon was growing in popularity, would we not have seen these companies making rye whiskey expand into the bourbon market?
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Unread postby dgonano » Thu Jan 04, 2007 3:32 pm

Not neccesarily, Mike. I was just glancing through an old pamphlet from Irwin Cobb. It was copyrighted in 1936 and dealt with the Frankfort Distillery.

He mentions "King" Bourbon and "Prince" Rye in the article so I think we no where the two whiskies stood as to popularity. I personally believe that the "Pure Food Act" drove a good amount of the Old Ryes out of business pre Prohibition. And after Prohibition the available whiskies especially Rye were inferior ( as for the reasons stated by all above ) during the start-up period in the mid 30's.

Interesting that Frankfort owned 4 distilleries ( 2 in KY and 2 in MD).
They still made straight Bourbons and Ryes but their best selling products and the ones they promoted were the "blends of straight whiskies" such as Four Roses and Paul Jones. I assume that part of the reason for blending whiskies was the unavailability of quality straight whiskey during the first years of Post Prohibition. The Maryland owned distilleries were most likely producing a good amount of the blends and eventually ( most likely at the time of the sale to Seagrams? ) the blends began to add lighter whiskies and gns to the mix.

There were still some small distillers in Maryland making straight Rye but the larger plants were owned by the big boys and blends were the thing. I don't believe the small boys were intereted in making KY Bourbon.

I believe bourbon sales were pressured during this period but you still had large companies making bourbon in KY. They were more resilient than the small MD rye distillers.

You still had a group of drinkers who liked Rye but these were the same imbibers that drank Scotch- the more wealthy and older clientel. The younger and less wealthy common drinkers were into beer and blended whiskies since the end of WWII.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Jan 04, 2007 4:49 pm

Yes rye is one of those funny things that (like, say, pool - the game) has two sides. A gentry side and a more common one. Melrose always had a high image and its main brand after Prohibition was a blend of straight rye whiskies (all-straight that is). Also, it put out "straight straight" (unblended) whiskey like Canton Maryland Straight Rye Whiskey, Old Record Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey, and American Rye Whiskey. Its blended straights were Melrose-Blended Straight Rye Whiskies and Old Judge Rye-A Blend of Straight Whiskies (the latter presumably could include bourbon or straight whiskey not meeting the standards of identity for rye).

How I know this is these brands top the list in a booklet I have on the history of the Melrose distillery - I have to get a copy of that to John (Strayed) as promised, sorry John!

Other brands had a high image too, but not all did - there is a market for everything and everyone.

That being said, there were simply many more bourbon distilleries than rye in 1910 - Bready says there were "hundreds" in Kentucky but listed only about 15 for Maryland. He said they would have had the same mashing capacity on average but the absolute numbers were so different.

Why? (These are my inferences).

1) More beverage choice in the North East (rum, applejack, scotch, beer, etc.) and a more heterogenous popluation to enjoy them.

2) Since out-of-state ownership was common even by 1910 for Maryland at least, the product lost its local image and therefore cachet. The Food and Drug law of the same era would not have helped.

3) In general, rye was declining. If rye was strong it would have built bourbon brands on its back. Instead it was the other way 'round. Bourbon had to shoulder its ancestor, rye whiskey, like a child grown up and having to care for its infirm parent..

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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Jan 04, 2007 7:19 pm

Gary,
The Melrose book may be the same one I have - about 50 pages and printed in the 1940's? If not, I would be interested in a copy as well.

Once again you make some very good points. About the Cobb quote though, I will say from what I know of his humor, he may be playing up on the "King" bourbon brand that was made at that time. Still it is a very interesting quote.

It does begin to look as if rye's decline started during or just after prohibition. The dry years left people with a desire for less distinct flavor and a suspicion about the quality of the rye they were getting. Another factor may be that the rye whiskey of old did not age as well as some products and by the end of prohibition there was a lot of very old rye on the market. I have sampled from many of these brands and they definitly have the "burnt matchstick" flavor in them that I am sure turned people off then as much as it does me now. Over aged rye was not very good.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Jan 04, 2007 7:33 pm

Yes, that could be, Mike. Rye ages less well than bourbon (although neither benefits really from prolonged age).

I think we have the same Melrose book, definitely.

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Unread postby EllenJ » Thu Jan 04, 2007 11:45 pm

WOW!
I haven't had a chance to linger here much lately, but Mike copied me on an email and I dropped in to glance.
Holy Moly! Two pages in six hours! That's gotta be a record for the forum!

Mike, Dave, Gary, Chuck, Joe all share with me and each other a particular interest in rye whiskey, both historically and as a very enjoyable product in its own right. It's great to see a discussion with so many factors examined, and each is well thought-out and presented. I think I agree with all of them, except that I probably share somewhat Gary's skepticism that the presence of some blended ryes distinguished them from bourbon-type whiskeys to any great extent in the public mind.

Basically, one notion that I find common in all the writing so far is one that no one appears to have actually singled out (or I may have skimmed over it), and that is that rye whiskey NEVER really "lost out" to bourbon in the public's favor. What happened is that WHISKEY ITSELF lost out. All whiskey (or at least all straight whiskey). Bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Pennsylvania/Maryland, all of it. American whiskey (really, even including most blends except for 7-Crown, Three Feathers, and Four Roses) became a niche product, and the niche was not a particularly socially-desirable one. Of course there were exceptions. Especially in Kentucky, where whiskey (straight bourbon whiskey, of course) was enjoyed by the socially prominent sectors. And when whiskey did begin to become acceptable, it was due to the hard work and brand development done by the industry a single state... Kentucky. Gary mentioned that bourbon was popular "in the South". Well, drinking it might have been, but since Repeal, the only "South" producing whiskey (yes there are a couple of exceptions) was Kentucky (and most hard-line Southerners only hesitantly grant "South"ness to Kentucky). In Pennsylvania and Maryland, in Tennessee (except for the two Kentucky-owned distilleries that re-located there), Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and in Virginia (again, with one notable exception), the conditions (mostly legal) were simply too difficult to keep making whiskey profitably. So, by the 1980s, Kentucky became, by default, where American whiskey was made. And the whiskey Kentucky made was bourbon. If you enjoy American rye whiskey, especially the amazingly wonderful American rye whiskey available today, you can thank enthusiasts such as yourselves, along with the Michael Jacksons, Jim Murrays, and Lew Brysons who gave distillers reason to experiment with marketing this product. And the whiskeymen who put their collective neck on the line to do so (since all of the whiskey distilleries are owned by spirits companies whose corporate profits would probably benefit if they dropped whiskey production altogether and stuck to vodkas, gins, light rums, tequilas, and flavored "fun-drinks"). Julian Van Winkle, Mark Brown, the Shapira brothers, the Kulsveens, Jimmy Russell.

So that's my addition: From the '30s to about the mid-sixties, whiskey was fairly popular in America. Rye, Bourbon, blended whiskey, all of it. Then came James Bond, vodka martinis, fuzzy navels, harvey wallbangers, and so forth, and pretty quickly the only ones left making whiskey were those distilling in Kentucky where their industry was encouraged. And even that's gone, now, really. A topic I'd enjoy seeing here might be "what would it take for someone, not currently recognized as a distiller, to start up a whiskey distillery in Kentucky?" That's what the original Shapiras did in the thirties. Could a group of their counterparts do it today? And if they do, can they please make it a rye distillery?

P.S. - ALL rye distilling isn't dead in Pennsylvania, just the kind that comes in labelled bottles. I'm toasting y'all now with a glass of lovely, crystal clear rye whiskey from the hills of Centre County Pennsylvania where the Nittany lion roams. One might call it a cottage industry.
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Jan 05, 2007 4:41 am

Well put, John.

When I said the South and South West, I meant straight whiskey's natural hinterland (of consumption).

E.g. Texas is a bourbon state even if the stuff was never made there. It ain't no scotch state, at least not until recently.

The reverse however is true of New York State (in the whiskey category to be sure), or has been for some time..

As for a new whiskey distillery: there is one, near New Paltz, N.Y. (not KY), and it just released a bourbon called Hudson Baby Bourbon. The website is easy to find and describes how they did it.

Joe Luka posted some impressions on another web site and I hope will post more detailed ones here.

Since this site is New York-oriented, I hope others here will offer their opinion on it too. I understand the distillery will release a rye whiskey in the future.

But John's general question is a good one: what is involved, where will it happen? It has happened in fact in numerous parts of the country, but until recently no one thought to release a bourbon.

In my view, the release of Hudson Baby Bourbon is a major event (beyond the significance of how it tastes, or how it may taste in relation to its cost) since this is the first new company to release a Bourbon since Maker's Mark in the 1950's.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Jan 05, 2007 10:29 pm

John as always makes some interesting points. The question might be has rye really come back? The true answer is no,well, maybe, but it could. The way it does that is to see new distilleries making the rye whiskey everybody wants to drink. We are seeing that with Old Portero and some other micro distillers, but it will take one or more these companies taking the next step and becoming a real player in the market and not just a "microdistiller". Then we will know rye is back to stay because it will be popular enough to attract new businesses that actually make money selling the product because the market is that good.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Sat Jan 06, 2007 6:18 am

Gary, do you mean the pride of Tuthilltown, New York?

Although I haven't had a chance to try Hudson Baby Bourbon, thanks to LeNell and Ben the corn whiskey section of our "shrine" contains a bottle of what must be called Hudson Infant Bourbon.

Well, I guess it could also be called Old Gristmill Authentic American Corn Whiskey, too, since that's what its name really is.

Technically, it isn't "bourbon". So it might not be the white dog for their Baby Bourbon, but I think it is. The label proudly states it's "100% Hudson Valley Corn", and bourbon is usually thought to be a combination of mostly corn, along with some rye or wheat and some malted barley to get the fermentation going. By law there must be more corn than all the other grains put together, but there is no upper limit on how much corn. Bourbon COULD be 100% corn, provided it meets the other requirements.

What may be confusing to some is that we're mostly accustomed to seeing bourbon as "straight bourbon whiskey", although it doesn't have to qualify as straight whiskey in order to be labelled bourbon. Hudson Baby isn't a straight whiskey. But it isn't a blended whiskey, either. For those readers who are just beginning to explore the details of the American whiskey world, this is an excellent place to learn. Take some time and work through the forum threads. Use the forum's search function to find discussions about "what is a bourbon". Plan to spend some time with it -- if this doesn't bore the crap outta you right away you'll probably find it fascinating and addictive.

Okay, back to Baby. Baby's label states that it's made "from 100% Hudson Valley Corn", which is also what the Old Gristmill label says. HOWEVER... the label only says that the corn used is 100% Hudson Valley, not that 100% of the ingredients are corn. In fact, it doesn't really say that all the corn is from the Hudson Valley, either. Only that Hudson Valley corn, unblended with other corn, is among the corn used. I have no reason to doubt that all the corn is Hudson Valley local corn, but it's important to take note of such things when examining label statements.

The label (at least as far as I can tell from the photos I've seen) also doesn't give an age statement, but Tuthilltown distiller Ralph Erenzo is quoted in the Poughkeepsie Journal as saying it's aged only three months.

Let's put that into some perspective: Federal regulations prohibit selling, as straight whiskey, a product that has not been aged for a minimum of two years in a new, charred oak barrel. If thus aged under four years, the time must be stated on the label (i.e. "This whiskey is 36 months old"). Four years and above does not require an age statement at all, although most distillers will quickly boast of additional aging. There are exceptions. The federal regs, aware that such boasting ought to be controlled just a bit, require that, if there is an age statement, the age shown cannot be higher than that of the YOUNGEST whiskey in the bottle. No fair putting one ounce of 12-year-old into a bottle of two-year-old whiskey and calling it twelve. Or even six. There is no upper limit; that is, even if every drop is over ten years old you can still call it an eight-year-old if you want. And there are many reasons why a distiller would want to do that.

There is a tradition in American whiskey (mostly unobserved by the current major distillers) of what was once called "quarter whiskey". As the name suggests, this was whiskey aged for, you guessed it, three months (a quarter of a year). Although I don't know if it was actually called Quarter Whiskey, Jack Daniel's used to market a brand called Lem Motlow, which was aged three months. They did that until fairly recently (mid-'80s?). Pint bottles can be found occasionally on Ebay selling for several hundred dollars.

In the case of Baby, though, none of that matters. Because it's not a straight whiskey. Basically, it's bourbon if it's made from 51% or more corn (including 100%, Hudson Valley or otherwise), it's distilled at under 160 proof, it's aged FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME in a new, charred oak container, it's alcoholic strength is reduced to no more than 125 proof before barreling (it can only be reduced, since nothing but water may be added to it -- especially not neutral spirits), and it is bottled at no less than 80 proof.

Hudson Baby is all of those things... and more.

Like Fritz Maytag's Old Potrero whiskey, Erenzo and partner Brian Lee produce in very small runs. Maytag calls his "essays"; Tuthilltown's are called "batches". These are "Small Batch" indeed. How small? Well, consider that their first batch sold out almost immediately, and with the confidence that comes of a sellout, Batch 2, presumably, was somewhat larger. The total bottling for batch 2 (which is also sold out now) was 420 375ml bottles. Total! That's 210 standard-size bottles, or a little shy of one normal 53-gallon barrel (allowing for absorbtion; no time for angels, though).

But Ralph & Brian's website (http://www.tuthilltown.com) doesn't say what kind of cooperage they use. What it DOES say is that you can order a personal barrel from them. As is true with all distilleries, you get your whiskey bottled (375ml or 750ml, your choice) and delivered to you via a licensed spirits retailer, along with the cask. There is a photo of a pair of hands holding the cask. The cask in the photo is 3 gallons. It's labelled "Batch #1, Keg#1" and is obviously a documentary souvenir of the distillery's first "baby steps". Those are proud hands holding that cask. They claim the aging period for a two-gallon cask (they offer several sizes) is three months. That would lead me to believe that the commercial product is aged in 2- or 3-gallon casks. I've seen photos of the bottle, and that aging period puts a very lovely color into this whiskey.

I'm excited to try Hudson Baby Bourbon, although it appears that the Goddess and I will need to arrange a trip to N'Yawk in order to do so.
Hey, LeNell! How far is Gardiner from Brooklyn?
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Unread postby gillmang » Sun Jan 07, 2007 8:49 am

Hi John, it is Tuthilltown I meant, yes.

You explained well the legalities.

I think the thing about non-straight bourbon to appreciate is that it must be aged, in new charred barrels of course, for a time. The length is not specified in the law. Evidently it must be long enough to lend some character of what is considered bourbon.

We know that just a few months aging can impart good colour - we know this from the very example of Hudson Baby Bourbon - and the use of small barrels by Tuthilltown clearly hastened the effect.

Some friends of mine have experimented with re-aging of bourbon in small charred barrels for a few months and likewise the liquor got a lot darker with increased taste.

As to how much taste a 3 month bourbon would have as compared to the 100% new corn whiskey it was likely made from - Joe Luka has said he confirmed with the owners the mash was 100% corn - that is a good question.

Joe himself has said the bourbon tastes young but he reserved the right to give a further extended taste note and Joe, I hope you will print it here soon.

In 1809, Samuel M'Harry wrote that aging new spirit (and by the way he was familiar with pot stills which is what Tuthilltown is using) would impart, "some color and maybe some taste". He did not specify the barrel type that had this effect. I believe though some of the barrels he used were new charred or well toasted. In order to impart color in a relatively short time (whiskey was little aged then so he must have been talking about a few months aging, maybe a year) the barrels he used must have been charred or well-toasted. A barrel that is not charred won't lend much color to spirit as we see from some malt whiskies aged 10-15 years which are "white wine" in color or almost.

So, when M'Harry said such aging would impart "maybe some taste", he must have been referring to a young taste of bourbon in effect. I am sure he would recognise the taste of the Tuthilltown whiskey.

The news story you referred to was very interesting. It seems like Tuthilltown got on the road of making bourbon in a rather indirect way, certainly it was not the result of a long-conceived plan by bourbon lovers. (One owner does not drink liquor and the other only tastes the bourbon for testing purposes). There is something endearing about that. These gentlemen have in their own way hit on making something that in all likelihood is a replica of an early American straight whiskey. No doubt as the years go by we will see longer-aged products issued, and they have said a rye whiskey will come out soon.

I tip my hat to them.

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Unread postby cowdery » Tue Jan 09, 2007 3:34 pm

Piggybacking on my own previous post, I think one of the reasons Canadian whisky is frequently (and mistakenly) called rye is in part because of the phenomenon I mentioned. Sellers were free with the term "rye," regardless of what was actually being offered, because that was what their customers wanted to hear.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Wed Jan 10, 2007 2:06 am

While I do agree with that explanation, I also think a lot of the confusion may have resulted from a much simpler fact: the Schenley company, makers of some of America's favorite whiskeys, moved to Canada. Those whiskeys included Golden Wedding, Old Fire Copper (O.F.C. - now known as Old Fine Canadian), and many other (mostly Pennsylvania) RYE whiskeys took their names north to Canada. In one way of thinking, the Pennsylvania rye whiskey industry never really died; it's just known as the Canadian whiskey industry now. And when Seagram's, which really is a Canadian company, started buying up the remaining U.S. whiskey distilleries after Repeal, that only emphasized the image that anything not Kentuckian is Canadian Rye.
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Unread postby gillmang » Wed Jan 10, 2007 6:21 am

John, I agree with that but the effect on Canada of Pennsylvania and its whiskeys - which you yourself first identified via your theory of Loyalist influence - long predates Schenley's installation here.

The term rye whisky probably has been used here since the early 1800's, sharing in this respect the terminology used in the American north east for the main type of straight whisky.

The term is still widely used here but perhaps not as much as before. It is one I associate with English Canadians of a certain generation and social background (Old Ontarians, Maritimers and Westerners descended from this stock, and of course others, affected by their practices). I think some of the manufacturers (even from the beginning) have tried to substitute the more general term, "Canadian whisky" (I think e.g. that is what it states on a bottle of CC). But old habits die hard and the term will be around for a long time.

The best explanation I can come up with is, rye whisky was a low proof, high flavored whiskey here too originally, and since it was the predominant type people called any locally made whisky rye.

Mike has drawn to my attention the history of Canadian whisky by Lorraine Brown and anyone who has the book might check on her explanation for the term. (I have never been able to easily find a copy). I did read the magisterial master's thesis on Canadian distilling by a lady called Tanya MacKinnon (I discussed it on the board at some length earlier). To the best of my recollection, she offers no specific explanation of the use of the term here other than it was the main type of whisky sold in Canada before the great blending innovations of Hiram Walker and the other Big Five which established hegemony in Ontario by 1900 (Seagram, Wiser's, Corby, and ... Gibson I believe was the last one).

By coming here in 1945 Schenley was repeating an old pattern (it should be recalled that the very influential Hiram Walker was an American, from Massachusets).

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Unread postby cowdery » Thu Jan 11, 2007 4:06 am

I have read the Brown book and I don't recall her addressing the issue.

The Schenley point is interesting.

As you know, I like simple explanations. It could be that "rye" had become synonymous with "whiskey" in popular usage, from a time when it mostly was "rye whiskey" (both in Canada and the U.S.) and that habit persisted in some areas. I know that here in the midwest it has always been common to refer to Canadian whisky as rye.

It's like the habit in some parts of the American South of calling all soft drinks "Coke." A better example might even be that the term "soda pop" was shortened to "soda" in some parts of the country and "pop" in others, for no particular reason.
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Unread postby samkom » Thu Feb 22, 2007 7:48 pm

For what it's worth, here's my addition to this thread. Rye was definitely not out of favor, in Pennsylvania anyway, after Prohibition. The 1938 PLCB price list I referenced in the Michter's discussion comes back into play here. It lists 39 straight rye whiskeys and 18 straight bourbon whiskeys; 16 rye whiskeys and 10 bourbon whiskeys; 7 'blends of straight rye whiskeys' and none for bourbon, and though 'blends of straight whiskeys' number 14, 8 of those have 'rye' as part of the brand name.

We also see 7 blended rye whiskeys, but then 63 blended whiskeys, many of them from Pennsylvania distilleries, presumably with rye as a major component! Hmmmm, seems the blends had some influence on the market back then!
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