Ask any serious drinker for their thoughts on the quintessential American libation, and the responses may astound you. If you’re going by sheer volume, the answer is beer, as any Benjamin Franklin lover and witness to the ascendance of the lowly craft brewery can attest. If heritage is the standard, it’s a toss-up between Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. If historical significance factors into the equation, the rejoinder may be rum, given its wealth-establishing role in the colonies in the run-up to the American Revolution. But if you’re going by provenance, the only answer is rye.
The grandfather of both Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, rye made its name in Pennsylvania and Maryland and moved north, where the German, Scottish, and Irish settlers who established small-batch distilling operations were forced to use the hardy grain—creating a whiskey that was boldly flavorful, spicy, and biting—when the British began taxing molasses and other ingredients for making rum. Thus, an American tradition was born. George Washington distilled it at Mount Vernon, Herman Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick, and everything was running smoothly until Prohibition took the wind out of rye’s sails, coercing Americans to favor the watered-down whiskies that were smuggled in from Canada and the neutral spirits (gin, vodka) made in domestic bathtubs. Flavor, once rye’s strength, became its downfall.
However, all wasn’t lost. Kentucky bourbon makers bought what few rye brands survived, keeping the tradition alive if only for a few days out of the year. Those limited bottles made their way over the last decade to the whiskey enthusiasts and bartenders responsible for the country’s nascent craft-cocktail scene, giving rye a new lease on life, but the next wave of rye’s quiet comeback is taking place—where else?—in New York, a state steeped in rye-making tradition and poised to take the grain to new heights.
Craft distillers were already making small batches of rye whiskey in 2015, but a group of six decided to create a new standard for the spirit, taking their cues from the pre-Prohibition heritage that had perished in the early 20th century as well as the modern concept of terroir, a term that historically has been used to describe the distinctive flavor profiles of unique regions of winemaking but increasingly is becoming de rigueur in whiskey-making circles. Though national standards call for rye to make up 51 percent of a mash bill, this new Empire Rye is more exacting—and thus more representative of a true New York style and terroir. To qualify, at least 75 percent of the mash bill must be rye, and that rye must be grown solely in the Empire State. (The remaining 25 percent is where the creativity and differentiating taste come in, as the whiskey can be made with any combination of corn, wheat, barley, oat, or—why not?—more rye.) It must be made at a single New York distillery in a single distilling season, and it must go into new oak barrels at no more than 115 proof, a throwback to old-school rye distilling protocols. And that’s just for single malt. Blended whiskies must employ 100 percent Empire Rye. The result? A whiskey you can’t make anywhere else in the world.
Nine distilleries throughout New York now produce Empire Rye expressions, including the six distilleries that started the trend: Black Button Distilling in Rochester, Coppersea Distilling in New Paltz, Finger Lakes Distilling in Seneca Lake, Kings County Distillery and New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn, and Tuthilltown Spirits in the Hudson Valley. Some 17 distilleries have committed to joining them, seven of which will release their own versions of Empire Rye by the spring of 2020.
All of which is to say the time is ripe for intrepid whiskey lovers to try the distinctive flavor of Empire Rye in the place where it was born—and think outside the Kentucky Bourbon Trail box. Here’s how to do it.
Start your journey on a Friday in Brooklyn, where you can taste your way through three worthy expressions of Empire Rye in a day if you’re so inclined. Or ease your way into the trip. The Red Hook stalwart Van Brunt Stillhouse wasn’t a founding member of the consortium that created the Empire Rye designation, but it holds the honorary title of First Adopter because it was already distilling Empire Rye before it was a thing; the owners asked to join the group soon thereafter. Stillhouse Rye is light and spicy, with notes of orange peel, dried apricots, and clove and a toasty finish, making it a perfect afternoon sip. Enjoy an early supper at Red Hook Tavern (no one would fault you for ordering the sublimely decadent—and much-Instagramed—burger to soak up all that booze), then hop back in the car or, better yet, get an Uber.
The tasting room stays open until 10 pm at Kings County Distillery, just 10 minutes away in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the Empire Rye feels slightly cozier thanks to hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and maple. Be sure to grab a takeaway gift set—three of the distillery’s main whiskeys packaged in a custom wooden box—then bed down nearby at the William Vale Hotel, where you’ll be walking distance to your third and final stop on the Empire Rye Trail in Brooklyn, New York Distilling Company.
Made with an heirloom strain of rye grown on a family farm in upstate New York, the Ragtime Rye is warm and biting, underscored by sweet red berries and licorice. Early birds, take note: The distillery doesn’t open until evening during the week, and 2:00 pm on the weekend. Take the morning to hit the shops on Bedford Avenue, join the hipsters for avocado toast and kale salad for brunch a few blocks away at Llama Inn, then get your dram on at the Shanty, New York Distilling Company’s brick-walled bar.
From there it’s a pretty straight-shot, under-two-hour ride north to Stone Ridge, New York, where you’ll arrive at Hasbrouck House, an 18th-century Dutch Colonial stone mansion with 25 intimate rooms, a 100-year-old pool, and a farm-to-table restaurant with a classic Hudson Valley menu (think cauliflower and gruyere soup and port-glazed duck). Even the smoked trout is served with toasted rye, a fitting end to a rye-filled day.
Borrow one of the hotel’s bikes to kill some time picking apples in Stone Ridge Orchard, reached via a dirt path behind the property—or, if you’re really ambitious, doing the 40-minute round-trip hike to Awosting Falls nearby in Minnewaska State Park Preserve—while waiting for the tasting room at Tuthilltown Distillery, New York’s first post-Prohibition whiskey distillery, to open. On your way, fuel up with a wood-fired Margarita pizza at Westwind Orchard, then sit back to sample the peppery bite of Hudson Manhattan Rye, an award-winning whiskey that finishes with notes of cinnamon and honey. Co-founder Ralph Erenzo had a key role in helping get the Farm Distillery Act passed in 2007, which allowed farms to become distilleries, paving the way for Empire Rye and the locavore movement’s rise in New York drinking culture more generally.
Your next stop is just 15 minutes away, in New Paltz: Coppersea Distilling (you’ll need to call ahead for an appointment during the week). The Bonticou Crag Straight Rye Malt Whisky takes the Empire Rye concept to the next level. It’s bottled at 96 proof and made with 100 percent malted heirloom rye harvested from the brand’s own farm, as well as neighboring farms in the Hudson Valley. The taste is marked by fruitiness that gives way to caramel, vanilla, and honey flavors.
Yankee Distillers in Clifton Park stays closed on Mondays and Tuesdays—all the more reason to make sure your bags are already packed for the 95-minute drive past Albany. Swing by the tasting room for a swig of the brand’s peppery rye, then spend the night 20 minutes away in Saratoga Springs. The Adelphi resides in a historic 1877 building that has been restored and luxuriously appointed with tufted club chairs, brass globe lighting, and flourishes inspired by the Victorian era. Don’t miss the duck confit potato skins at Salt + Char, a classic steakhouse just off the lobby that specializes in showcasing locally sourced ingredients.
You can end your tour here, or venture deeper into the state’s interior. Black Button Distilling in Rochester, Honeoye Falls Distillery in Honeoye Falls, and Finger Lakes Distilling in Seneca Lake all produce admirable Empire Ryes, but the ride from Saratoga to this part of New York will take you close to four hours, making this leg of the journey not for the faint of heart. You can always revisit them when the remaining 10 distilleries—and who knows how many others—adopt the cause in the coming years.