As the master distiller of Maker's Mark, Dave Pickerell spent 14 years making one of the softest, tastiest American whiskeys on the market. He took the brand from 175,000 cases a year to nearly a million and introduced a generation of discerning drinkers to the joys of premium whiskey. Did you really think he'd just go quietly into retirement?
Instead, after leaving Maker's in 2008, Pickerell turned his passion for whiskey to a less-heralded American spirit, rye – bourbon's older, spicier cousin. Then Pickerell went to work: He found an eager partner in Raj Peter Bhakta, a former investment banker, onetime Apprentice apprentice, and erstwhile congressional candidate – and launched WhistlePig, a premium small-batch rye named after the humble groundhog. WhistlePig is now growing fields of organic rye on a 500-acre farm near the shores of Vermont's Lake Champlain, where they're also building a distillery.
WhistlePig joins a rivulet of rye that has turned into a river. Five years ago the choice of ryes ranged from slim to none in the form of dusty bottles of Old Overholt or Wild Turkey Rye. But a growing number of established and startup distilleries now embrace this rustic, spicy whiskey. Why the resurrection? "It's a perfect storm of trends," says Pickerell. To wit: Drinkers want more flavor. "And there's a trend toward authenticity," he explains. "The first Mint Julep, the first Old-Fashioned, and the first Manhattan were almost certainly made with rye." With that in mind, here are six other revivalist ryes to try.
Knob Creek Rye Whiskey
Historically, autumn belongs to bourbon. For nearly 20 years, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival has taken center stage in Bardstown, the county seat of that state's whiskey-making region. But for the past little while, another native American spirit has been creeping up behind bourbon's back: rye whiskey.
With a handful of major players already in the rye-making game, Knob Creek, a brand that's as old as the bourbon festival itself, has finally ushered in its take on rye whiskey, bottled at 100 proof just like its bourbon. Considering this is the brand responsible for introducing drinkers to the concept of small-batch whiskey (Knob Creek claims bragging rights as the number-one selling premium bourbon in the world), it's a big deal in the whiskey world for it to risk its rep. In our opinion, the move has paid off in spades.
There are certainly less expensive options out there – at $41 a bottle, Knob Creek Rye costs more than twice as much as our well-bar go-to, Old Overholt – but as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. In this case, the proof (all 100 of it) is literally in the bottle. Sipped neat, it has a smooth, extra-spicy finish that's alluded to in Knob Creek bourbon, but is now fully realized in a rye content well above the requisite 51 percent. Put it on ice, and that spiciness counters the cold with a warm aftertaste. When the weather turns, a softer, sweeter rye such as Old Overholt suffices in an Old-Fashioned. But for a stronger drink such as a Manhattan – when we want our whiskey to kick – Knob Creek's Rye has strong legs.
One caveat: We have no idea how old this stuff is. The bottle tells us only that Knob Creek Rye is "patiently aged," a coy approach that contrasts strongly with the brand's proud declaration of its bourbon's nine years of age. Whether it's a marketing gimmick (perhaps driving demand for an older rye to be released in the future?) matters little at this point: We'll take it. [$41; knobcreek.com]