Why Empire Rye is a Whiskey Category You Should Know

Allen Katz with a bottle of Ragtime Rye. Courtesy New York Distilling Company.
Allen Katz with a bottle of Ragtime Rye. Courtesy New York Distilling Company.

As a classification of American whiskey, rye seems straightforward enough. The same rules as bourbon, with the namesake grain supplanting corn as the primary ingredient.

You didn’t really think it’d be that easy, did you?

Although we use the term as a broad catchall, a growing number of distillers are fighting for regional sub-categorizations. Leading the charge is a New York consortium that envisions ‘Empire State Rye’ as its own official appellation. Last year they even christened the middle of October ‘New York Rye Week’. In honor of its second annual iteration (from the 15th through the 21st of this month) let’s look at how provenance plays into the country’s oldest whiskey.

A hardy grain that thrives in the colder climes of the mid-Atlantic, rye was a Revolution-era mainstay on farms from Maryland up through the Finger Lakes of New York. As such, the history of its derivative spirit is intertwined with that of the original colonies.

Just before his death at the turn of the 18th Century, George Washington owned the largest rye distillery in the country. But even back then the seeds he sourced, the crops he yielded in Mount Vernon, Virginia would differ in flavor from what was sown by his neighbors to the north.

For Allen Katz this lengthy past informs the backbone of Empire State Rye’s contemporary distinction. “We’re working with a specific antique variety called ‘Horton’ rye,” says the man behind New York Distilling Company in Brooklyn. “It comes from the Horton family of Rye, New York. We have their genealogy and they were farmers from the region. We were gifted just ten seeds from [the] Cornell University [agriculture program].”

From this modest heirloom sample (it takes at least a million seeds per acre for a craft operation to yield a viable amount of crop for distillation purposes), Katz and crew eventually arrived at a liquid that finely demonstrates the cultural and historical attributes of its specific birthplace. Enhancing the hallmark spice of the category is an underlying sweetness of red berry and licorice.

It stands out for good reason. Whereas the majority of today’s craft whiskies are sourced from the stills of MGP in rural Indiana, Empire State Rye can only contain grain from within New York. Beyond that, this subcategory must own a mash bill of at least 75% rye, as opposed to the 51% minimum requirement for a standard American Rye. So not only are you tasting a distinctive grain, you’re likely tasting more of it.

On the federal level, TTB has yet to officially recognize Empire State Rye as its own subcategory. But the designation has the full blessing of the local government, which is all too eager to support agricultural entities within state boundaries. The consortium has adopted its own supplemental sticker for qualifying brands. In addition to Katz’s Ragtime Rye, there are currently eight other producers brandishing the Empire Rye Label on their bottles: Black Button Distilling out of Rochester; Coppersea Distilling out of New Paltz; Finger Lakes Distilling out of Burdett; Honeoye Falls Distillery out of Honeoye Falls; Tuthilltown Spirits out of Gardiner; Van Brunt Stillhouse and Kings County Distillery both out of Brooklyn; and Yankee Distillers of Clifton Park.

The movement towards regionalization might seem ironic in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Yet it makes perfect sense as a kind of backlash against pervasive homogeneity. “In the large scale perspective of how to make craft relevant, regionalization is something I advocate,” says Robin Robinson, a sales and marketing consultant in the spirits industry. “I call it the ‘Rt. 66’ effect. Back during its heyday, the highway contained regional variations that occurred nowhere else. You had to go there to get it. Small brands will need that to survive, kind of like Garryana oak in the Pacific Northwest.”

Allen Katz and his Empire State cohorts are investing heavily in this philosophy. “We continue to age stocks across New York,” he says. “There will only be more choices to make as the [subcategory] broadens and develops into the future.” At its core, the movement conveys something deeper than any single sticker can carry. It’s about an abundance of choice — the most American spirit of them all.