A Signature Spirit for the Empire State
New York State distillers have banded together to produce a new category of whiskey they're calling Empire Rye.
Rye has long been recognized as the “underdog grain.” For generations, rye was used as a winter cover crop in organic farming. With its deep roots, the grain captures nutrients, enhances soil health, prevents soil erosion, and reduces weeds without the use of herbicides. A century ago, the grain grew better than barley or corn, and was imbibed by many on the East Coast. Thanks to Prohibition, rye all but disappeared for decades.
But in recent years, Americans have once again embraced its resourceful properties as a grain. Reflecting on its long-enjoyed popularity in Europe, the rye turnaround has welcomed an abundance of new and assorted products in food and drink — ultimately bringing rye back to New York State. “Because of the new grains that have come along, we’re witnessing a renaissance in the interest and production of small grains in the United States. Hudson Valley is a hotspot for small, organic farmers — we’re working to revitalize production on high-valued grains,” explains Mark Sorrels, Director of the Small Grains Project at Cornell University.
Two years ago, six New York State distillers banded together under the Empire Rye Whiskey Association to produce their own category of rye whiskey within their state. Each distiller's bottling of "Empire Rye" is crafted in accordance with the same specifications, yet each is given plenty of freedom to express their own style.
The standards call for a mash bill of 75% New York State-grown rye grain — either raw, malted or a combination. The remaining 25% can be any New York State-grown raw or malted grain, distilled in New York at no more than 160 proof, and aged in New York for at least two years in charred, new oak barrels at no more than 115 proof. This all has to occur within a single distilling season; either spring: January 1st through June 30th, or fall: July 1st through December 30th. Finally, it must be a blended whiskey containing no less than 100% qualifying Empire Rye whiskies before it can receive the official Empire Rye sticker.
The founding distillers of the Empire Rye consortium include Black Button in Rochester; Finger Lakes in Burdett; Coppersea Distilling near New Paltz; Tuthilltown Distilling in Gardiner; and Kings County Distillery and New York Distilling Co., both in Brooklyn — all six released a different take this fall.
New York City’s oldest, largest, and premier craft whiskey distillery, Kings County Distillery, unveiled a mash of 80% rye and 20% malted barley, now available to purchase in its Navy Yard tasting room. Tuthilltown Spirit Distillery’s Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey contains 90% rye and 10% malted barley, generating a rustic yet smooth expression. “The rye starts out with a peppery, spicy taste but when you let it sit in a glass, you discover it suddenly shifts to caramel and vanilla,” says Ralph Erenzo, distiller and partner at Tuthilltown.
To spread the word of the new regional spirit, the distillers hosted the first annual New York Rye Week this year during October 16th to 22nd, with various events around New York City. Leading the charge was Allen Katz, co-founder of Brooklyn-based New York Distilling Co. and pioneer of rye's comeback. NYDC recently released two rye expressions, Ragtime Rye and Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye. Katz says, “It’s the ideal moment in the evolution of cocktail culture and interest in distilled spirits to celebrate America's resolute and original whiskey, and to taste so many of the great ryes from New York and around North America."
Ragtime Rye, comprised of 75% rye, 10% malted barley, and 15% corn is a blend of three, four and five-year-old whiskies — which rest and mature into the distillery's most versatile rye whiskey. Its newest expression, Ragtime Rye Applejack Barrel Finished, debuted last month and is aged five months in an applejack barrel for a secondary finish.
Collaborating with Rick Pedersen of Pederson Family Farms in Geneva, New York, Katz retrieved a forgotten variety of rye that was prevalent in New York State as far back as the 1700s. This heirloom variety (called Horton) was widely used in whiskey-making until it diminished due to a decline in commercial demand for rye. Years ago, the duo planted the seeds of Horton, knowing it would be a nearly ten-year project. After seven years (and counting) of harvesting and replanting, New York Distilling Co. now has more than 50 acres of Horton under cultivation. Today, the distillery is aging the two-year-old Horton mash, preparing to release it next year under the Empire Rye criterion.
“The renaissance will grow!” Katz stresses. With more than 100 craft distilleries in the state of New York and a continued demand for regionally specific spirits, the group believes more distillers will produce a rye whiskey in accordance with these standards, making the category of Empire Rye known internationally.