Rebooting a classic American whiskey in Utah.
In 1964, bourbon whiskey became “America’s Native Spirit” in a congressional act signed by President Lyndon Johnson. But in between the rum-soaked days of the pre-Revolution republic and national Prohibition (1920-1933), rye whiskey—not bourbon—was arguably the most common tipple of our country’s formative years. In fact, Scottish distiller James Anderson convinced George Washington that in addition to setting up an on-site gristmill to process crops grown on Washington’s plantation, surplus grain should be converted to lucrative whiskey. By 1799, Mount Vernon distillery was one of the largest booze manufacturers in our fledgling nation. In its second year of operation, it produced 10,942 gallons of whiskey made primarily with rye—a grain familiar to European colonists—and a good dose of New-World corn.
Following in the footsteps of European traditions before them, most of America’s earliest distilling operations were small community-based enterprises, often set up as part of agricultural cooperatives. Any extra harvest not used for feeding livestock and people could be converted into more portable (and shelf-stable) alcohol in the form of whiskey, beer, hard cider, applejack (distilled cider) and spirits made from other fruits. From New England, all along the Eastern Seaboard and into hilly western Pennsylvania famous for its Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, highly dispersed, relatively unregulated and defiantly tax-resistant rye whiskey distillers dominated. And in the South, corn-forward bourbon boomed.
Prohibition almost completely wiped out the straight rye market; only a few already-established producers like Buffalo Trace in Kentucky kept registered “medicinal” sales licenses through the restricted years. Following Prohibition, Americans eschewed relatively spicy, more grain-forward rye whiskey and embraced sweeter bourbon and blended whiskies from Canada. Starting in the 1970s, sales of American whiskey in both bourbon and rye varieties took a huge hit from our country’s ever-mercurial taste buds as vodka dominated the market through the 1990s. However, rye’s stamp on the formative years of cocktail culture remains. Of the “classic” bar standards, three drinks are synonymous with rye: the Manhattan, Sazerac and Old Fashioned. And its popularity as a “call” drink embodying gumption and grit endures in film, from gunslingers calling for a bottle in pretty much every spaghetti-western saloon, to hazy barstool scenes in Humphrey Bogart noir classics.
Rye’s association with spunk and stamina is something that industry experts note as part of whiskey’s dramatic rebirth. The Distilled Spirits Council (the national trade organization representing U.S. producers and marketers) notes bourbon and Tennessee whiskey volumes grew 28.5 percent and revenues rose 46.7 percent between 2009 and 2014. In comparison, rye has shown an almost 800 percent growth since 2009, although rye remains a relatively small percentage of overall American whiskey sales ($150.9 million for rye versus $3.1 billion for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey in 2016).
As a now-legendary example, in 2007, David and Jane Perkins started High West Distillery, Utah’s first legal distillery since before Prohibition. In doing so, they rode the beginning swells of this century’s brown-liquor rebirth to great acclaim. They hit the market with almost-perfect timing: In 2006, 100-proof classic brand Rittenhouse Rye was named “North American Whiskey of the Year” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and dusty rye bottles were moving from the bottom shelf to eye level at influential bars across the country. Spice-forward rye was making a comeback.
Dave Perkins, a biochemist, was inspired during a trip to Maker’s Mark bourbon distillery in Kentucky to study fermenting and distilling, and brought that passion to Park City. However, it takes years, if not decades, to bring aged whiskey to market. Although Perkins started with a 250-gallon pot still at their saloon in old town Park City, he sourced the bulk of High West’s whiskey by the barrel from established Eastern manufacturers who had hung onto their delicious surpluses even during the whiskey doldrums of the ’80s and ’90s. Perkins also incorporated multi-year and multi-spirit blending strategies, creating popular bottles like Campfire, a crazy-like-a-fox rye-bourbon-Scotch blend.
Jeff Thompson, president and founder of the 350-plus member Salt Lake City-based Whisky Drinkers Union affinity group, says of one of his first revelatory experiences with whiskey was trying High West’s Rendezvous Rye. It was one of the brand’s initial offerings, and Thompson reminisces that it “conjured up images of Dave Perkins poking though dusty rickhouses with only a flashlight to pick barrels and steal them off to his lab in the Utah mountains.” Thompson acknowledges that it’s probably not a completely accurate representation of Perkins’ method, but it fits with High West’s romantic and Indiana Jones-like marketing strategy.
Unlike many other whiskey brands that jumped on the bandwagon in the early 2000s claiming original recipes and long-lost pre-Prohibition distilling histories that often turned out to be complete BS, Perkins was upfront and transparent about his sourcing model.
His gamble paid off. In a controversial move, Whisky Advocate named Perkins “Pioneer of the Year” in 2010, applauding him in equal parts for his innovative business paradigm and for bringing delicious whiskey to the market in an approachable way. Following the approximately $160 million buyout of High West by Constellation Brands in 2016, Perkins was named by the same critics as “Distiller of the Year” claiming this as justification: “Yes, High West, a craft distiller based in Utah, is a great American success story. However, their success is not the reason for our recognition, but just one more result of what whiskey enthusiasts know to be true: High West delivers innovative and delicious whiskeys, expands the definition of what it is to be a distiller, and pioneered a successful new paradigm for craft distilling.”
High West might be one of the most highly visible players in the rye reboot of the 21st century, but Utah-based wine and spirits expert Francis Fecteau of Libation Inc. says that model is only one part of a bigger craft spirits-driven story. He points to smaller groups like Ransom Spirits in Oregon and Sugar House Distillery as examples of how craft distilling brings delicious diversity to the market.
Fecteau says, “Much of the rye on the current market comes from the same place,” sourced from a factory in Indiana called MGP Ingredients (formerly Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, and before that, Seagram’s, including its stocks of rye standard distilled from 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley). As an example of MGP’s industry domination, a global investment group called Osbourne Global Investments traced MGP’s 95 percent rye recipe product to almost 100 brands on the market in 2015. In comparison, Fecteau applauds craft distillers for bringing rye back to its roots as a spirit based in the agricultural traditions of a specific place. “It’s an exciting time for craft distilling. The grain and the whiskey are produced in the same place; it’s very terroir driven,” much like wine. And it also happens to make for very tasty whiskey.
Sugar House Distillery owner James Fowler agrees with the idea that craft whiskey is an integral part of regional agriculture. “We work directly with farmers to get fresh grain,” he says, sourcing it from Delta, Utah, and Idaho Falls, Idaho. They mill the grain on-site at the distillery.
Lead distiller Eric Robinson notes that working with rye is a challenge. “It’s hard to work with a 100 percent rye because it’s very viscous. But using fresh local rye makes a better product,” he says.
The agricultural process goes full circle at Sugar House Distillery, as another local farmer collects the leftover grain mash to feed his livestock. Fecteau is a fan of SHD’s thoughtful local ingredient-driven approach. “It’s an original spirit. Tasting a truly small-batch rye like Sugar House reminds you that whiskey is made out of grain.” It’s a spirit with less of an emphasis on the contact with wood during aging, and more about the ingredients that make up the spirit itself: local grain, yeast and mountain-fresh water.
So, celebrate an American classic with a simple glass of Utah rye. Or try out some of Salt Lake’s favorite rye-forward cocktails in this issue’s Spirit Guide. Cheers to that!
High West Distillery
27649 Old Lincoln Highway
Sugar House Distillery
2212 S. West Temple, Unit No. 14, SLC