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A demise of rye and its rebirth

Unread postPosted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 4:02 pm
by bourbonv
I have been having some interesting correspondence with some people about why rye whiskey declined so much in the the late 20th century and is only now experiencing a growth in popularity. There are several people here who have opinions that I respect and I am curious as to their thoughts on the subject. Anybody want to give their point of view on the subject?

Unread postPosted: Tue Jan 02, 2007 7:20 pm
by gillmang
Mike, I think the demise of distilling in Maryland and Pennsylvania is the answer.

The South from early on had competitive advantages (labor, land). Also, or what is saying the same thing, rye had declined in the north just before WW I in relation to Bourbon. The north was always more heterogenous than the South, and other drinks, therefore, competed with rye, to its disadvantage. In the South and South West, competition from scotch whisky and beer was not as acute.

While the South always made rye, its bellweather was Bourbon and therefore, unless rye was "supported" elsewhere it would whither.

Prohibition alone is not the answer: theoretically it should have affected Bourbon as much as rye.


Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 12:48 am
by dgonano
I'll pitch in my two cents....

After Prohibition the Maryland and Pa distilleries needed a lot of capital to restart their old distilleries. The competition was coming from Canadian products(rye based but far smoother than harsh straight rye) and Canadian and American distillers such as Seagrams , National etc. who after purchasing the old rye plants were satisfied with producing blended whiskey or shutting the old plants down and eliminating the competition.. This was much cheaper than producing straight rye for I believe the rye grains were not locally grown(wild onion in the crops) and were more expensive than even corn.

I remember when I was young my parents and relatives all drank highballs made with Four Roses , Schenley , Seagrams or Calvert. Rye wasn't even mentioned.

You could still buy Pikesville Rye in the 1980's but it had fallen out of favor, and its distiller ( Majestic ) had stopped producing the whiskey. Heaven Hill later made some whiskey for Pikesville but it couldn't be labeled as"Maryland Straight Rye"...Maryland Style Rye I believe it was called. Some remaining barrels from those early batches most likely is today's 21 yr Rittenhouse Rye.

HH of course later purchased the Pikesville brand and continues to make Kentucky Straight Rye.

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 11:32 am
by bourbonv
Thanks for the input Gary and Dave. I did not want to state my opinions to start with because I wanted some independent thoughts on the subject to start the discussion. I will give my opinion now for discussion.

Rye's demise is a complicated process that involved many factors. Here is a list of what I think may be the leading factors.

1) Rye is more expensive to make and more difficult to make than bourbon, but does not have a radically different flavor, so companies had little reason to push the whiskey as a style.

2) Pennsylvania rye producers had to deal with a state government that developed more and more restrictive laws and costly taxes driving the production from its roots into Kentucky.

3) Maryland style rye was a blended whiskey product and suffered the decline of both blends and ryes in popularity.

4) Canadian whisky marketers played on the fact that they used rye in their formulas until it became a substitute for rye in the minds of the consumers. This would never have happened if American rye producers continued to exist as independent companies.

5) The rye market was always strongest in the Northeastern states, particularly New England, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. After prohibition it lost its place to Scotch whisky because Scotch had a status symbol appeal that rye did not have. During prohibition if you could afford real Scotch Whiskey, then you were upper crust society. Rye whiskey came from less reputable sources. Mt Vernon rye was popular with the criminal underworld because one pint could be stretched to six pints with neutral spirits and still be a drinkable product. Other ryes were being stretched just as far but without the favorable results.

6) Rye whiskey faced the same problem that bourbon faced in the late sixties and seventies - a generation that did want to drink what their parents drank and turned to new products such as vodka, wine and tequila.

Anybody want to debate these reasons or add other reasons to the list? If you think I am wrong or on the right track but not there or anything in between, feel free to say so. I like good historical debate and do not take offense to criticism or corrections.

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 12:07 pm
by gillmang
All very good points Mike, although originally in Maryland rye was a straight product. This is clear from Jim Bready's article from 1990 in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

It seemed to become a blend early on, true, but until the end of rye in Maryland straight whiskey was available (e.g., Pikesville, Ruxton, Melrose (some of their brands although their main product was a blend of ryes or straight whiskeys), Emerson's, Cockeysville, countless others).

Bready makes the point that the image of rye was diluted even before WW I. This resulted from acquisition of distilleries by out of State (American) companies. Even Mount Vernon was originally owned by a concern from Philadelphia.

The Canadians could have confused bourbon drinkers with bourbon-oriented blends just as they apparently did rye consumers with rye-oriented ones. And in truth, that happened in part, e.g., Seagram Five and Seven Crown and it was not just Canadians that did this, what about all the famous post-war bourbonish blends like Kinsey, PM, Schenley's whiskies, etc etc.?

In the end, the north was richer and less traditional. A mixed population could afford something different and, as you said, ostensibly better.

In the stronghold of bourbon production, people held on to it more than happened with rye, simply because there was less choice of "foreign" liqours, what there was cost a lot, and few people felt they needed to drink differently to express individuality. Rather, the reverse was true, a group ethic was in operation. Bourbon was regional, southern, and expressed the identity of a cohesive group.


Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 1:01 pm
by bourbonv
I will disagree with you about Kentucky having less choice of foriegn spirits. Kentucky is also the home of many of the liquor companies that import soirits thus they would market those spirits here as well as New York or Los Angles. Glenmore built the Amoretto brands nationwide and they always had it available here as well. Brown-Forman, Schenley, National, Seagrams always had imported products and they would make them available to the markets so their employees could get them. Bourbon competed well with these products, but the competition was there and it was and is varied. Go into a liquor store and even in Kentucky, the Scotch, Canadian, gin, vodka and tequila sections are often bigger than the bourbon section. There are liquor selections here in Louisville where there may only be 5 bourbons and an equal amount of Scotch and Canadian products and all whiskey dwarfed by vodka and flavored goods selections.

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 1:18 pm
by dgonano
Mike and Gary's opinions are to be well taken.

Some other points are:

The younger generation of the second half of the 20th century never experienced an advertising campaign for rye whiskey. Beer and wine were thrown in front of them on TV and in magazines. Vodka and gin became the next choices in many mixed drinks. Both were much cheaper to produce than rye whiskey. As was stated earlier blended scotch became a very popular whiskey ( scotch and soda, scotch and water ) for the more affluent.

Back to Pikesville... even though the straight rye( yes it was straight ) was more expensive to make than most other whiskies, it was priced much lower than bourbon. It was thought to be an inferior product.

I do believe there were attempts to keep rye alive after prohibition as many advertisements can be found in maagazines in the 30's and early 40's. But with the arrival of WWII came the converting of many plants to manufacture fuels for the war effort. Afterwards came a push for cheaper and smoother products and the new plant owners were happy to oblige with blended products. Later the higher priced Crown Royal and CC products , being much smoother, were the whiskies of choice. By that time not many ( probably only a few ) even remembered rye whiskey.

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 1:31 pm
by bourbonv
Your point about the Television advertisements for beer and wine is an interesting thought that may be added to the list. The only argument I can think of is that bourbon (as well as vodka and gin and all other distilled spirits) were part of the same ban from advertising. Bourbon survived and rye barley did only because some companies kept a rye in their portfolio. True bourbon suffered a serious decline and many brands and distilleries disappeared, but the category survived in much greater shape than rye.

After prohibition, rye was still pretty much on an equal footing with bourbon with each having their strong marketing section. Both products were in short supply but distilleries were re-opening in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Whatever happened to rye came after prohibition, but was not caused by prohibition. Look at Shenley or National advertisements from the 30's or 40's. They feature both bourbon and rye brands. It is the 1950's when bourbon was at its golden age when supply was plentifull and sales strong, that rye starts to disappear from the magazine advertisements of these companies and the rye is usually replaced with a blend or a Canadian or Scotch import. That may be what we are looking for as to the beginning of the decline of rye. what makes the 1950's different for rye whiskey? Was there new taxes or restrictive laws passed in Pennsylvania and Maryland?

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 2:04 pm
by gillmang
Mike, regarding the social position of bourbon, I was referring to an earlier time. Tastes were formed not in the 1990's but in the 1890's. At that time, bourbon was growing in strength and was a valued regional product. There were so many distilleries and they supplied the cultural and physical product to the satisfaction of a cohesive, traditional society. I don't think there was mcuh foreign product in America period then, but much less in the South, border South and South West than in the richer, smaller North.

People knew brandy, Scotch, Canadian (CC), Irish, genever and dry gin in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc. I don't think this was as common in Louisville of the time, Lexington, Atlanta, etc. in the Southern belt. The cities there were smaller and less sophisticated than in the North and the rural belt was dry anyway, unlike in many parallel areas in the North.

So taste preferences were different in the two areas from the outset I think.

However I agree with you about the 30's ads showing Vernon, Overholt, Taylor, Grand-dad together. Ditto after the war although the change started early. Vernon becomes a blend in about 1946, the ads suggesting its lightness and lower proof made it a better product than the straight product (grrr!).

Why did rye fall off so precipitously, as you asked, in this period?

Distilling and the demand correlatively for its traditional product was much weaker after 1933 in the North than the south, for straight whiskey. It was very weak and finally succumbed to further out-of-state acquisition and change. Taxes may have played a part but I don't think so. Had the market, anyway, subsisted, rye could have been made in quantity in Kentucky to supply the market.

The problem is that American disinterest in rye was a longstanding problem, not something new in the late 40's.

And emerging sophisticated methods of national advertising could not change that.

Some people thought rye would endure, e.g., it is salutary to recall that Jim Beam's rye (of that name) was introduced in that decade.

I think though it was a decline of long standing and it just continued to vanishing point (almost).

In 1880 corn first exeeded rye in usage for liquor grain bills. This change was not precipitate. That heralded, or rather reflected, a sea-change (slow and completely transforming).

Quite honestly too (or maybe this is saying the same thing), we should remember rye is a more challenging drink.

Even M'Harry in 1809 writes that a blend of corn and rye makes "better whiskey" than all-rye (as the traditional product was or mostly was).

We have to come to terms with this.

Unlike the producers of, say, blue cheese or caviar, no one in the industry knew or cared to explain or felt confident to explain (in a time of looming Prohibition) to consumers what a fine, distinctive, individualistic product rye whiskey was. They had other options and the upshot was declining sales, from 1880's on.


Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 4:14 pm
by bourbonv
I would disagree with your assesment that rye was loosing popularity before prohibition. When you look at all of the major brands of bourbon, they had a rye counterpart - Old Fitzgerald Rye, Old Crow Rye, I W Harper Rye, Old Taylor Rye, Weller Rye and so on. Even the increase in the grain that you mention may have been more a reflection of the growing popularity of bourbon and corn whiskey than a decline in rye, but the most likely cause was the growth of rectified spirits that used corn based Neutral Spirits. Rye was an important part of the post prohibition marketing campaigns so there was a demand for the product, at least the marketers were convinced it was a market worth pursuing. Even Pappy Van Winkle made sure they had a rye to offer.

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 5:22 pm
by gillmang
Good points, Mike.


Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 6:49 pm
by cowdery
I was told many years ago that both rye and irish whiskey shared a similar fate. Prior to prohibition, rye was the most popular domestic whiskey while irish was the most popular import. As a consequence, when people were trying to pass something off as quality during prohibition, they likely would claim that it was rye or irish, and both developed a bad reputation as a result.

I think this story is valid but it represents just one of many factors, some of which have been mentioned already. Ultimately, bourbon was just better suited to changing tastes, as people wanted something milder, sweeter and less bitter.

Unread postPosted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 6:59 pm
by Bourbon Joe
Excellent discussion gentlemen. John (EllenJ), what is your take?

Unread postPosted: Thu Jan 04, 2007 10:35 am
by bourbonv
I am glad you liked the points but after thinking about our discusion and Chucks point, I have some other thoughts. Prohibition definitely changed something. Before prohibition there was a rye version of most major brands. After prohibition there was not. What caused this change? To understand that you must have some idea of how whiskey was sold legally during prohibition.

When prohibition came into effect, there were a certain amount of license given to companies to sell "medicinal spirits". These companies started selling their own brands to doctors, dentist, bakers and pharmecies. After a year or so the government saw that a lot of distilled spirits were being sold illegally and the alcohol came from old stocks, so they created "consolidation" warehouses to control the stocks of aging whiskey. As time passed these companies ran out of their whiskey and had to buy aging stocks from other sources. People who did not have a license to sell, but owned pre-prohibition whiskey had their whiskey in consolidation warehouses so license holders knew whst was available and who owned it. They would either buy the whiskey from the owner and bottle it as their brand, or they would bottle the whiskey as the owner's old brand and sell it for the owner taking a commission.

Now if you you have limited whiskey and a limited market, you are going to consolidate your efforts into certain brands. This may mean that if you have a major rye brand in your portfolio you may eleminate the rye version of your bourbon brand and use that whiskey to support your major rye brand. Then as Chuck states, if the illegal market is immitating your rye label and putting rot gut whiskey in the bottle, it is going to hurt the reputation of the brand and the style of spirit. This is going to make it harder to bring back quality rye whiskey after prohibition ends. Thus by the end of prohibition you have ended rye versions of major bourbons and the major rye brands suffering a loss of reputation.

Unread postPosted: Thu Jan 04, 2007 11:54 am
by gillmang
Yes, but we still have to come back too, I think to Canadian whisky blurring the image of straight rye during Prohibition.

(I perhaps am contradicting something I said earlier, but in the end I think all these reasons being offered are valid, but some more than others).

While Canadians made some true straight rye and straight bourbon and it was bootllegged into the U.S. (I have seen the labels), most of what it made was Canadian blended whisky. CC had established itself in the U.S. before Volstead. Its influence though after was much greater as for Seagram's products, Corby's, etc.. Canadian whisky was, and some still is, essentially a diluted straight rye whiskey. It was not a diluted bourbon whiskey. So when consumers were offered this lighter rye as "rye whiskey", they could not distinguish it from true rye whiskey. After 1933, to supply that market, I think blended rye whiskeys became bigger than they ever were before 1919. This left little room for the traditional article. Most people did not know the difference and it was cheaper for distillers to sell blended rye than real rye.

This logic applied less to boubon I think because, being further away from Canada, the south suffered less from the Canadian rye invasion; second, to the extent Canadian rye found its way there, it wasn't really a bourbon substitute, so bourbon therefore in people's minds remained more integral a drink during Prohibition and after it ended.

However I still think it is true to say, Mike, that bourbon was advancing on rye before 1919. Look again at Bready's article which cites pre-Prohibition statistics on number of distilleries in Maryland and PA vs. Kentucky. True, the big bourbon brands had rye counterparts, but what were the relative sales?

Rye just doesn't have the same mass appeal. As Chuck said, bourbon is sweeter and milder (generally) than rye whiskey and people like that. Heck, they almost gave up on bourbon, too!