Comin’ through rye in a spirited reprise

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Finicky fans of top-shelf bourbon are being lured by another American whiskey that hasn’t been widely consumed since actor Humphrey Bogart was in his prime.

Straight rye whiskey, the first whiskey produced in North America, is again tantalizing enthusiasts after falling out of favor after World War II.

Premium versions of the spicy, robust whiskey may entice sippers who increasingly are looking for more rare and expensive whiskeys, said F. Paul Pacult, an author and specialist on wine and spirits.

“Straight rye whiskey is a bona fide comer because the increasingly sophisticated American palate is searching for new and exciting high-end spirits,” said Mr. Pacult, who edits the F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal.

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. and other Kentucky companies have been producing straight rye whiskeys for decades, but the Bardstown, Ky., distiller is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of premium bourbon with a pricey release reaching stores this month.

Heaven Hill’s 21-year-old Rittenhouse Very Rare Straight Rye Whisky will retail for about $150 per bottle — a hefty price even for a niche spirit.

Superpremium and small-batch bourbons recorded $50 million in U.S. sales for the year that ended Aug. 2, according to ACNielsen, a consumer tracking group. That’s up more than 35 percent from two years earlier, when the industry reported $37 million in sales of the pricey spirits.

Heaven Hill’s master distillers produced 3,000 bottles of the Very Rare Rittenhouse, and each is marked with the barrel it came from.

“There’s a resurgence in the market for premium ryes,” said Parker Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hill and a grandnephew of the famous distiller Jim Beam. “That 21 years of aging in the barrel brings out all the qualities you could ever expect in a rye.”

Mr. Beam said people who haven’t tried straight rye whiskey think it has a bitter taste.

“Matter of fact, they’re usually a little sweeter than bourbon,” he said.

Mr. Pacult said some other rye offerings are Old Overholt, produced by Jim Beam Brands Co., Sazerac Co.’s 18-year-old Rye and Michter’s Rye. Mr. Beam also produces Basil Hayden’s, a premium eight-year-old whiskey made with a higher concentration of rye than traditional bourbons contain. A bottle sells for about $35.

“When you look at the industry as a whole, not only is there a huge interest in bourbons and North American whiskeys, but the fastest growth is taking place at the superpremium end of the market,” said Sarah Devaney, a spokeswoman for Jim Beam Brands. She said Basil Hayden’s saw a double-digit increase in sales from 2004 to 2005.

Scottish, Irish and German immigrants distilled the first rye whiskeys when they settled in North America. It was the whiskey of choice in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it fell out of favor with Americans in the mid-1940s after troops returning from World War II developed a taste for European whiskeys, said Larry Kass, a spokesman for Heaven Hill.

Despite growing interest in premium ryes, they remain a small niche in the larger bourbon market. Mr. Beam said Heaven Hill mashes 1,000 barrels of rye each year, compared with 700 to 800 barrels of bourbon a day. Overall, U.S. bourbon sales totaled $495 million for the year that ended in early August, according to ACNielsen.

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