We’re calling it: New York whiskey Empire Rye is the next big thing in drinks.
The generosity and mellow roundness of Kentucky bourbon. The signature peat and smoke, thick as the native brogue of Islay Scotch. Ireland’s friendly, easy-on-the-palate selections. The precision and intent brought by the Japanese to their whiskies. If any parallels can be drawn between a representative whiskey and the country or region where it was forged, then let the next notable region to stake a claim on the world whiskey map reveal the same. Empire Rye entered the whiskey picture with as much boldness and ambition as is befitting a denizen from its namesake.
Empire Rye, a style of whiskey which currently boasts nine current and 16 future distilleries committed to the craft of rye-based whiskies from New York State, was born not as much out of a recognition of something that was already happening, but out of a determination to make something happen, with a succinct yet enterprising goal: “to make the category of Empire Rye known throughout the world.”
Ragtime Rye American Straight Whiskey, see regional pricing and availability on Drizly
One of the original line-up of Empire Ryes.
“New York is a great climate to grow rye!” says Allen Katz of New York Distilling Company, one of the distilleries responsible for the Empire Rye distinction. Rye is a grain that produces a sharper, spicier spirit than barley or corn, and is a crop that performs especially well throughout the northeastern United States. Whereas bourbon is primarily distilled from corn, and Scotch from barley, whiskey made from rye was the popular choice in New York and surrounding states from the late 1700s until Prohibition.
After the almost 14 mandated years of ceased production, rye-based whiskey failed to recover as well as its corn-based counterparts. “A lot of knowledge was lost in Prohibition,” said Jason Barrett, head distiller of Rochester’s Black Button, in a 2017 interview with the New York Times; “It set American whiskey back a hundred years.” With the meteoric rise of craft American spirits in the last decade came a renewal of rye’s potential, especially in the northeast where it had always had a spiritual home.
As all good spirit-based ideas, the impetus for Empire Rye was itself spirit-fueled, during a craft spirits conference where several New York State distillers began talking of a need to establish or recognize regional specificity as a means to narrow the field in the ever-growing U.S. craft whiskey market.
Katz’s distillery only makes rye-based whiskey: “There was an awareness that several other distilleries were experimenting with rye,” he says, “and that it could be a unique point of difference from other whiskies, particularly bourbon, that are made in different parts of the country.”
Six New York based distilleries initially came to the metaphorical table to lay the ground rules toward the goal of establishing a distinctive New York State style: Katz’s Brooklyn-based New York Distilling Company, as well as Black Button Distilling (Rochester), Coppersea Distilling (New Paltz), Finger Lakes Distilling (Seneca Lake), King’s County Distillery (Brooklyn), and Tuthilltown Spirits (Gardiner).
Whiskies the world over have codified everything from ingredients, distilling methods, and aging requirements as standards to which spirits within their distinct categories must adhere to bear the name, whether it be bourbon, Scotch, or even Canadian whisky.
Following this custom, in order to bear the Empire Rye symbol, those whiskies must: contain a mash bill with at least 75 percent New York State-grown rye; be distilled to no more than 160 proof; age for a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels at not more than 115 proof; and be crafted from mash to completion at a single, New York State distillery.
According to the Empire Rye website: “Each distiller’s bottling of Empire Rye is crafted in accordance with the same exacting specifications and yet each is given ample space to express their creativity.”
Rye is often characterized as having a bolder, spicier flavor than other whiskies, and the same is true for the catalogue of Empire Ryes. It is also interesting to note that the Empire Rye barreling requirement of 115 proof is less than the nationwide standard for rye at 125 proof, which could soften its edges somewhat. But does this necessarily create a distinctive flavor profile for whiskies with the ESR mark?
“There is not one discernible flavor for Empire Rye at this time,” says Katz, which is in large part due to the room for an individual distiller’s creative expression as outlined above. Empire State Rye, as with most whiskey categories, determines intent rather than outcome. “We are all just starting to release whiskey in earnest. Our (New York Distilling Company) Ragtime Rye – Bottled In Bond was just released in April and is our first whiskey designed, from the start, as an Empire Rye. It is a four-year-old rye whiskey! In time—and that could be over the next decade—it will certainly be interesting to see if there are common traits by aroma or flavor from rye grown in New York State, specifically Upstate.”
From the original six distilleries, nearly 25 distilleries either already produce or have begun the process of producing Empire Ryes, with more than a dozen being able to carry the mark within the next couple of years, according to Katz. “It is exciting to see the number of New York distilleries investing time and energy to produce rye whiskey.”
Meanwhile, regional promotions such as New York Rye Week and particular partnerships with restaurants and bars help to create additional visibility. Manhattan’s two-Michelin The Modern restaurant offers an Empire Sour on its cocktail list that gracefully incorporates all six original Empire Ryes in the same glass. In the future they might even find themselves in the same bottle: “As a group we are also working on a vatted (or blended) rye that would feature a number of Empire Ryes from different distilleries that could be available by the end of the year in limited quantities,” hints Katz.
Look for Empire Rye selections in your local bar or spirits retailer, or see the links below to bring a taste of the Empire State into your whiskey home:
McKenzie Blended Rye Whiskey, see regional pricing and availability on Saucey
An upstate New York rye finished in sherry casks from local wineries.
Van Brunt Stillhouse Rye Whiskey, see regional pricing and availability on Drizly
A rye born from a series of successful experiments with a nice spiciness.
Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey, see regional pricing and availability on Saucey
Fruity, floral, and smooth, and one of the oldest distilleries in the bunch.
Header image courtesy of Shaiith / Getty Images