According to the Distilled Spirits Council, production of the spirit (defined as a whiskey made with at least 51 percent rye wheat, along with the usual corn and barley) grew from 88,000 cases in 2009 to more than half a million cases last year. Once widely available bottlings like Sazerac have become hard to find, and two major players, Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse, have suffered severe shortages. Clearly the demand is there, and small craft producers have noticed. Enter Allen Katz and his Brooklyn-based New York Distilling, which just released its first bottles of three-year-old Rag Time Rye. We sat down with Katz at the distillery’s bar to talk about America's rye obsession and how his new offering will make an impact.
Why did you choose to make a rye whiskey?
Part of it is my upbringing in Maryland where rye is the whiskey of choice. Originally, the Mid-Atlantic was a hotbed for rye whiskey production, primarily because that was the grain that was grown there. I remember seeing my grandfather and other relatives drinking rye, seeing it at bars growing up in Baltimore. It really wasn’t anywhere else that I went to—not in New York City, not in Chicago, not in San Francisco, not in New Orleans, not in London. Also, our unwritten philosophy is to make spirits that are purposefully different. We love bourbon; we drink a lot of bourbon and we sell a lot of bourbon at the bar. It’s a magnificent spirit. But it would take a lot for us to wave our hands, make noise and get some attention in a crowded field of beyond-extraordinary bourbons. There’s still a great deal of the rye story to be told. The other thing, which may or may not be well known, is that rye is one of the heartiest grains to grow.
It grows well in bad weather?
It lasts and lasts. I don’t want to say it’s indestructible, but the anecdote I can give is over the last few yeas we’ve been planting and harvesting rye with an independent farmer in the Finger Lakes. The rye is harvested in June to early July and the last two Junes have been devastating for upstate New York agriculture. This past June was the highest recorded volume of rain on record. The year before they had major rainstorms in June. They lost cabbage, corn and other vegetable crops. But the rye came through. This year’s rye harvest was just shy of 500,000 pounds.