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Rye, Mash Bills, and the Whiskey Economy

In the month or so since we launched our first version of The Barrel Outfit™, I’ve had several whiskey enthusiasts reach out to me to comment on how exciting and novel it is to see multiple different rye whiskeys featured. It’s caused me to reflect on how, to many consumers, “American whiskey” and “bourbon” have become almost synonymous with one another, and how that truly shouldn’t be the case.

First, let’s start off with what distinguishes rye, bourbon, and any other type of whiskey. Ultimately, it comes down to the mash bill that is used during the distillation process. Simply put, the “mash” is the core ingredient used during the fermentation process which creates the unaged whiskey that goes into the barrel. With all whiskeys, the mash bill always involves some sort of grain. And of the grains, there are four that are most common: corn, rye, wheat, and barley. Most mash bills will involve a blend of these four ingredients, but legally speaking, you can only be called a bourbon if your mash bill is at least 51% corn. This is how you wind up with descriptions like “wheated bourbon” (51% corn plus a good amount of wheat).

The same rules apply for other whiskeys – you can only be called a rye if the mash bill is 51% rye, and so on. And similar to bread, each grain has a much different flavor profile that shows up in your glass. Cornbread is sweet and rich, like bourbon. Wheat bread is mellow and easy to pair, like wheat whiskeys. And rye bread is vibrant, earthy, and rather strong, just like rye whiskey.

What most people don’t know about rye whiskey is that about 150 years before the bourbon craze took over Kentucky and the rest of the United States, rye whiskey was the preeminent spirit throughout the pre-colonial United States. One of the backbones of the Jamestown and surrounding agrarian economies, rye whiskey was as good as (and often better than) cash as local farmers would distill their local rye grains into whiskey for both drink and trade.

Hearing Scott Harris at Catoctin Creek Distillery talk about this is like taking a masterclass in pre-colonial history. But even cooler than hearing Scott talk about the history of rye is understanding the process they go through at Catoctin Creek to keep their rye whiskey as close as possible to the ones they were drinking in Jamestown almost 400 years ago.

It starts with the grains – Catoctin Creek uses 100% heirloom, organic grain in all of their mash bills. While organic has become trendy in the last 30 years, Scott points out that their purpose of using this certification is to ensure that the grains are as close as possible to what was growing in their backyard centuries ago. The result is a one-of-a-kind rye whiskey that is as historically accurate as it is tasty.

If you haven’t gotten in on the rye craze yet, I’d encourage you to dip a toe. Again, like in bread, the subtle nuances in how the distiller chooses to highlight and feature this vibrant grain can lead to incredibly different, but equally delicious, results. Look no further than the differences between Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye and Locke + Co Aspen Aged Rye in our recent Barrel Outfit to find two of my favorite, absolutely incredible ryes that couldn’t be more different in how they drink.

As for which is my personal favorite, I’m not telling.

Author: Brian Tung

Brian is the co-founder and CEO of Bootlegger Co. His favorite drink is a premium whiskey with one giant ice cube. But if forced to drink a cocktail, he loves a Sazerac.