A new group of craft distillers is out to prove that New York State whiskey is one to contend with. Empire Rye is working to take rye whiskey production back to its pre-Prohibition roots, a time when distilleries across New York State made the spirit. Its proponents hope this traditional style of whiskey will become synonymous with New York, the same way Kentucky is synonymous with bourbon, or Scotland with Scotch.
Rye once ruled in the Northeast with its bold, spicy flavor as Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York were hotbeds of top-notch rye whiskey production. The hearty grain is exceptionally well suited to the region as it’s able to withstand cold better than other grains. After Prohibition, as distilleries consolidated and the bulk of production was outsourced to Kentucky and Tennessee, rye’s popularity waned. Since rye can be a challenging grain to work with, Southern distillers opted to focus on the corn-based styles of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Today, rye is on the rise once more.
“Historically, everything above Maryland was rye,” says Colin Spoelman, co-founder of Kings County Distillery, in Brooklyn. “In terms of flavor profile, it’s grassy and allows more of the barrel influence to come through, which imparts spice.”
Four years ago, after an annual craft spirits conference, a group of New York distillers were celebrating together with a few drinks, and someone floated the idea of creating a classic New York-style spirit category.
“We’re all pretty tight and were chatting, drunkenly talking about what a whiskey style for New York State would look like,” says Christopher Briar Williams, chief distiller at Coppersea Distilling in New Paltz. “After that, every so often, we’d get together, and it would come up. One day, we said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and spent about a month deciding what that whiskey would be.”
A number of craft distillers in the state were already producing rye and the six founding members—Black Button, Coppersea, Finger Lakes, Kings County, New York, and Tuthilltown—decided that traditional rye whiskey was the drink New York should be known for. A strict set of rules was devised and only those whiskeys that met the criteria would be certified as Empire Rye.
While the national standards regulating rye whiskey call for 51 percent of the mash bill (mix of grains) to be rye, much like the requirement that bourbon be 51 percent corn, Empire Rye’s standards are tougher. The whiskey must be at least 75 percent rye to qualify, and that rye must be New York State-grown. The spirit must be made, from start to finish, at a single New York distillery in a single distilling season. It must also go into the barrel at no more than 115 proof.
“One of the hallmarks of pre-Prohibition whiskey was that it went into the barrel at a low proof,” says Williams. “When bourbon production was industrialized, that was increased to 125 proof.” The higher proof means more water gets added before bottling, which stretches the product and cuts costs. Williams and his colleagues are still learning how aging at a lower proof affects the final product, he says, "because no one has made whiskey this way since Prohibition.” But, so far, they’ve found that this more expensive process can impart finer flavors and more complexity.
“Last October, seven expressions were unveiled,” says Williams. "Since then, eight more distilleries have confirmed they’re producing it. So, in two years, we’ll have at least 15 distillers making Empire Rye. Our little joke is that Tennessee whiskey only has three or four (on the market).”
The fun part, he adds, will be when regional distinctions start to reveal themselves. Buffalo rye grows in different climatic conditions than rye from Long Island: do they produce different flavors? Williams and the others can’t wait to find out. What’s more, as the designation expands, it will boost the state’s agricultural sector. If all this is putting you in an Empire Rye state of mind, check out these bottles:
Bonticou Crag Straight Malt Rye
Coppersea grows its own rye on a 75-acre farm set on rich bottomland soil and is one of the few distilleries in the country to malt its own grain using the classic floor malting method. Its rye is big and voluptuous, with notes of graham cracker and dried fruit, and a S’mores-like finish.
Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey
As founder of the first whiskey distillery in the state since Prohibition, Ralph Erenzo was instrumental in passing New York’s Farm Distillery Act, opening doors for distilleries using local ingredients. The whiskey is spicy and rich, with pepper giving way to cinnamon and honey notes.
McKenzie Rye Whiskey
Made with 80 percent rye grown less than a quarter mile away from the distillery, Finger Lakes ages its whiskey at a low 100 proof. Such a high rye content gives it a spicy kick, nicely balanced with the dried fruit character imparted by the sherry cask finish.
Straight Rye Whiskey
The recipe for this whiskey was conceived by Nicole Austin, who was instrumental in designing the Empire Rye designation and was recently named the new distiller at George Dickel, in Tennessee. At a punchy 102 proof, it’s grassy with molasses and baking spice notes.
Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey
Empire Rye was the vision of six member distillers, but Van Brunt wasn’t one of them. They made a whiskey that met the requirements, so they asked to join the group. It’s floral and fruity, with coffee and chocolate notes, and a nutty finish.
Black Dirt Straight Rye Whiskey
Distilled from 100 percent New York-grown rye, the current release actually does not qualify as Empire Rye for one reason: it went into the barrel at over 115 proof. But Black Dirt has made sure its next release, out in 2019, will be eligible for Empire Rye certification.