The Rebirth Of Rye Whiskey And Nostalgia For 'The Good Stuff'

Dec 26, 2012
Originally published on December 28, 2012 10:04 am

It used to be said that only old men drink rye, sitting alone down at the end of the bar, but that's no longer the case as bartenders and patrons set aside the gins and the vodkas and rediscover the pleasures of one of America's old-fashioned favorites.

Whiskey from rye grain was what most distilleries made before Prohibition. Then, after repeal in 1933, bourbon, made from corn, became more popular. Corn was easier to grow, and the taste was sweeter.

To be sure, rye whiskey production is only a drop compared with the rivers of bourbon produced now, although rye whiskey sales have tripled in the past five years.

You can even find rye in the tiny farm town of Templeton, Iowa. It's said to be the same taste as the bootleg brew that Templeton was known for during Prohibition. They called it "The Good Stuff." It was popular in Chicago, a favorite of Al Capone. Templeton Rye, legal these days, and sold in Iowa and 11 other states, is made from a grandfather's secret recipe. The actual production, though, takes place at a distillery in Shelbyville, Ind., with the aged whiskey shipped to Templeton for bottling.

Templeton has one block of a downtown, with the street ending at the rail line and grain elevators. On a foggy evening I could imagine what it all looked like during the early 1930s — except for the bar where I had my first sip of the local rye and listened to handed-down stories about the government "revenuers" busting up stills. The feds rolled the kegs out into the hog lot and axed them open, they say. But naturally, they kept one or two for evidence.

Alongside the Kentucky River in Frankfort, Ky., stand the old brick warehouses of Buffalo Trace Distillery — that's a modern name for the "oldest continually operating distillery in the United States." It was even open during Prohibition, bottling pints of "medicinal" rye. Now, Buffalo Trace makes bourbon for 17 different labels. You can look up at the dusty warehouse windows and see the barrels, aging, waiting for five, six, or seven years to pass. There are a quarter million barrels in storage.

Plus, there's a few hundred barrels of Sazerac Rye — the longtime New Orleans favorite. Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace often hears from bartenders, calling from New York City, Los Angeles — trying to find Sazerac. He says the rye's intense flavor makes it perfect for the classic cocktails. "When you mix it in a Manhattan, it doesn't get diluted by the Vermouth or the bitters."

Deeper in Kentucky's Bluegrass region, you could meet up with Chris Morris, the master distiller at Woodford Reserve and ask him about rye. Here's how he identifies the aromas that arise when the spicy rye grain is cooked and distilled: "green apple, green banana, black pepper, leather, oak, tobacco, caramel, vanilla ..."

I was lucky. I'd arrived at Woodford during the second of only three weeks the distillery gives over to rye production. The rest of the year, they're making the highly-respected bourbon, Distiller's Select. (The Chris Morris signature is on every label.)

A while back, Woodford decided to venture into the rye market. The first barrels, aged for seven years, will be ready in 2016 and will be called "Red Rye Select." Morris clearly enjoys the brief change. He smiles when you ask about his favorite: "I think bourbon is the best whiskey made and rye is simply different."

Both the bourbon and rye are made from the mineral-rich water from the limestone aquifer that underlies the central Kentucky countryside. It's the same water the Scots-Irish frontier settlers used centuries ago. There was a still on every homestead — and that's how all this got started.

A decade ago in this country you could only find six brands of rye whiskey. Now there are more than 50.

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It's been said that the only people who drink rye are old men sitting alone down at the end of the bar. The whiskey from the rye grain once was America's favorite. It's what most distilleries made before Prohibition. Then after repeal in 1933, bourbon, made from corn, became more popular. Over the last five years, though, rye sales - while still small - have tripled with lots of new distillers cropping up. Here's a rye report from NPR's Noah Adams.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: One of the old favorite ryes is Sazerac, famous in New Orleans, now made in Frankfurt, Kentucky at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. These are barrels of bourbon at Buffalo Trace being opened after years of aging. Bourbon is indeed the real business at Buffalo Trace. Rye whiskey is only a drop of production. But rye has become worth an extra few days of distilling and some marketing.

KRIS COMSTOCK: I hear from bartenders from New York City to San Francisco, L.A. and Chicago.

ADAMS: The phone calls come in, asking: Where can I get some Sazerac? Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace tries to help. He knows the bartenders want a good rye for the classic cocktails.

COMSTOCK: It's got so much flavor, that when you mix it in a Manhattan, for an example, the flavor of the whiskey doesn't get diluted by the vermouth or the bitters, the other ingredients.

ADAMS: Or you could drink rye whiskey neat, by itself in a shot glass, or with ice. The fans of rye say it's more interesting than bourbon or scotch, with complex notes of citrus and flowers.

CHRIS MORRIS: You're going to smell some rye mash, and you'll notice how fruity it is when we walk in the door of the distillery: boom.

ADAMS: Chris Morris is the master distiller at Woodford Reserve, near Versailles, Kentucky.

MORRIS: A lot of noise in here, because we are steaming a fermenter, finishing a cook.

ADAMS: Woodford Reserve is well-known for its Distillers Select Bourbon. Chris Morris has his signature on every bottle. That production takes up most of the year, but a while back, Woodford started setting aside three weeks in the fall to make rye instead of bourbon. It's a different essence in the air.

MORRIS: Rye has more of a grassy character. Corn - hard to describe - it smells like you're in a cornfield. So, this definitely has that rye aroma.

ADAMS: The whiskey that was distilled this October at Woodford goes into barrels of white oak that have been charred for flavor, and then to sleep - aging for seven years. The oldest barrels already in the warehouse should be ready by 2016. The bottle label will read Red Rye Select. Chris Morris says Woodford decided to make rye before the uptrend.

MORRIS: Because it takes us so long to craft our product, it looks like we're following. And we actually believe we were a leader.

ADAMS: Now, we go out to Iowa farm country to find some rye that is for sale, but scarce. Templeton is the very small town. Templeton Rye is the brand being bottled here.


ADAMS: Fifteen part-time employees fill the bottles, put on the labels, pack the cartons. It's light work - time for laughing and gossip. Virginia Knobbe was one of the first to sign up.

VIRGINIA KNOBBE: We started when they started bottling and needed help.

ADAMS: And how did you hear about it to begin with?

KNOBBE: Well, we found out about it in the church bulletin. That's our local newspaper.


ADAMS: Templeton Rye once was illegal whiskey, high-quality home brew. During Prohibition, the farmers around Templeton, the townspeople of Templeton had secret stills. Keith Kerkhoff, co-owner of the new, legit Templeton Rye, works with a recipe from his grandfather. He's heard about the whiskey making since he was boy, especially about a certain creek south of town.

KEITH KERKHOFF: If you had a calm morning with atmospheric conditions were perfect, you could see little stills all the way down that creek, you know, the vapors coming off the still. And I guess that's when the revenuers should have been there. They could have probably busted them all.

ADAMS: Today's Templeton Rye is labeled Prohibition-era whiskey, and the website brags that it was a trusted name in Chicago, known as "The Good Stuff." Supposedly, it was Al Capone's favorite. All this could be called a bootleg backstory. As a potential investor once told Keith Kerkhoff, that's got to work.

KERKHOFF: He said, you got a good product in a bottle, but you got a fantastic story behind this product. And he says you just can't make these stories up.

ADAMS: As the folks at Templeton like to say, their rye is available legally for the first time in Iowa and 11 other states. A decade ago in this country, you could only find six brands of rye whiskey to choose from. Now, there are more than 50 on the market. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.