The rise, fall and rise of rye

Fred Minnick reflects on American rye whiskey’s topsy-turvy history and celebrates the return of interest in Pennsylvania’s pride and joy

When people ask me to tell the story of rye whiskey, I get a little lump in my throat. It’s really quite sad.

Once upon a time, Pennsylvania stood high upon a pedestal in the world whiskey standards. People coveted Pennsylvania rye so much that it created a whiskey divide in the United States.

Old Overholdt and Dunhill, among others, were every bit as good, if not better, than the best of Kentucky bourbon. They held taste offs in Washington, DC, and while the sweeter Kentucky bourbon won these, there was no swaying the rye fan.

Rye dominated cocktails and found its way served in more New York City taverns than bourbon, no doubt the proximity having part in this.

Then, as the US was heading toward a Prohibition, Pennsylvania distillers made pacts with liquor dealers in the Bahamas to bootleg liquor back into the states. Kentuckians tried to make similar deals with Cubans, but it didn’t work out. Therefore, when medicinal whiskey was prescribed, bourbon brands had the lion’s share of the labels, while genuine Pennsylvania rye was a bootlegger’s choice. This business misstep would play in American rye’s demise.

After Prohibition, rye still had a fancy in American hearts, but the fire dwindled by the decade and by the 1980s, while bourbon certainly wasn’t enjoying its past success either, Pennsylvania rye died.

Pictured: Dad’s Hat co-founders John S Cooper and Herman Mihalich (wearing the hat)


Kentucky managed to saturate the market, while Pennsylvania had a handful of brands. Fast forward to the late 1990s, when Edgar Miles Bronfman Jr, whose family started Seagrams, sold off his family’s legacy piece by piece. One of them was a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, used to make rye and bourbon for blending purposes. Pernod Ricard bought it and tried to use the distillery for ready-to-drink products, but it didn’t work out, so they sold it to Angostura’s parent company, CL Financial, who saw these massive rye stocks as an opportunity to service the fledgling craft distilling scene.

So, from 2006 to 2010, we saw new ryes popping up on the shelf and people started getting a taste for that dill herb-forward flavour of the 95 per cent rye mash bill from Indiana. In this period, folks were falling in love with rye cocktails and some cask strength zingers, such as Redemption’s age-stated ryes.

CL Financial fell flat in the global economic crisis and sold to MGP Ingredients, which makes food grade spirits, and continued the business plan of supplying bottlers and distillers. By this point – 2012 – Kentucky distillers had caught wind of this rye trend and went from making rye just once a month to several times, and that’s been slowly increasing as demand continues to skyrocket.

LEFT: Dad’s Hat exterior


That Indiana distillery also helped bring back Pennsylvania rye. The return of rye interest led to Dad’s Hat, a wonderful Pennsylvania brand, and more interest in the state’s whiskey past. So here we are now, in 2020, 100 years since American rye began its decline, with more rye flavours and styles than before.

And while I want to tell you about the earthiness of Wild Turkey ryes, the oily and herbaceous Peerless ryes and the herbal candy of Dad’s Hat, I feel the need to inform you to support the whiskey category you love. Because, the minute you don’t, you won’t see it. Just ask Pennsylvania rye.

RIGHT: Rye-making in action at Dad’s Hat