View Full Version : Ice - Did It Contribute to the Decline of Rye?

06-02-2007, 21:31
I use ice in bourbon maybe twice a year. Tonight was one of those times since it is very hot here. I find ice brings out certain qualities in bourbon and in particular it accentuates the rye character.

This may be a previously unheralded reason for the decline of rye whiskey and the amount of rye in bourbon mashbills.

In the old days before ice, rye fit in well to the light corn, wood gums and tannin frame of whiskey.

The more ice became used, especially after WW II, the more the rye elements obtruded and seemed out of place (not to me, I like rye, but to many bourbon and rye buyers as a whole).

The renaissance of rye in whiskey can be laid I think, in part anyway, to the tendency of the main whiskey writers and their acolytes to drink whiskey neat.


06-03-2007, 09:02
When you say bourbon and rye buyers as a whole were turned off to Rye because of Ice, Did you read that somewhere? I would love to know how the use of ice in rye could cause the total decline of a whole style of whiskey?

You say that whiskey writers and their followers tendency to drink rye neat is leading to the renaissance of rye. IMHO, I disagree with that. I think that the resurgence of the "Classic Cocktails" and their proper ingredients led to all this rye. The Manhattan and it's proper production, I think, gave rye it's boost. Just look at all the new bitters coming out. I think its all from the cocktail craze.

06-03-2007, 10:28
Did you read that somewhere?

You're reading it here, Joe.

Gary and others throw out a lot of ideas and theories, some of which don't pan out in the end (like mashing at boiling temps), but this site and the other bourbon forum originate and are the proving ground of many ideas dealing with American whiskies - as much as anything I know of going on in academia, private institutions, think tanks, or journalism.

Two examples I know of are the changing of the bib labels of Rittenhouse Rye and when a magazine "stopped the presses" to do a rye feature.

The Rittenhouse had been quietly distilled at Brown Forman for years since the fire at HH, with a palpable difference in character from the Bardstown distillation. Yet it was questions on this forum about why a 6 year old product would be using labels from a still that had ceased 10 years before that brought to light that this was an essentially new expression of whiskey. Shortly after HH changed their labels, the other forum picked up on looking for DSP KY 354 on the label and much discussion followed there, as well. Some time later newspaper articles (Regan and Pacault? I'm going from memory) started mentioning Rittenhouse, but only well after it had become a well-deserved darling of the two forums.

Malt Advocate "stopped the presses" to do a "rye has come of age" feature story as a direct result of the trailblazing of people who frequent this site. At KBF 2006, a gracious tasting had been set up at HH for some elixir they had in a barrel. Many of us tasted that 20+ year barrel of rye (it was the best whiskey I had ever tasted to that date) and the enthusiasm created there (several people tried to buy a barrel on the spot) emboldened HH to release that rye as a new product line. But also, that night gave ideas to participants to purchase their own barrel proof ryes. There are two raw-barrel rye purchases I know of, Doug and the Study Group's Willett's, and Lenell's Redhook. When John Hansell happened to be visiting KBD and was casually handed a Willett's as a sample, the response he and his circle had to it "stopped the presses" and they retooled the next issue to highlight the Willett's and the several other excellent ryes on the market. (It could have, and perhaps should have been, Lenell's rye that got the press as she's running a business and the Study Group just wanted access to great whiskey, but that's how journalists caught wind of what was going on).

This is not to mention that many of the core posters of the two forums are now being tapped into by journalists to help tell the story of American whiskey.

The point is that often journalists are learning what _we_ are doing and taking it as a point of departure. We do a lot of backslappin' good-timin', but this is also fertile ground for historical and social speculation as well. The other site has a strong tradition of this type of discussion as well, even more so than this site.

We don't just "read it somewhere." Journalists do a great job, but we originate a lot of what's going on.


PS - I'm not sure I'm with Gary's thesis either (my wife will only drink rye Manhattans, not bourbon), but its logic is refreshing and I hope it's treated seriously.

06-03-2007, 10:57
In the old days before ice, rye fit in well to the light corn, wood gums and tannin frame of whiskey.

The more ice became used, especially after WW II, the more the rye elements obtruded and seemed out of place


I would have to say prohibition killed rye more than ice.
During prohibition people got used to watered-down whiskey and bland Canadian whiskey that they called rye.
After prohibition they either stayed with the Canadians or turned to scotch for a whiskey with taste because there was no bourbon or rye ready when the ban was lifted, and then the American distillers rushed under-aged whiskey to the public that was not very good.

06-03-2007, 10:59
I think the dcline of American rye was mainly caused by prohibition. Most of the whiskey consumed in the us during prohibition was Canadian whiskey. People became accustomed to its lighter style and shunned the heavier whiskey's like rye after prohibitions repeal. Even bourbon took some time to catch back on after prohibition. I know people even today who think bourbon is too strong a flavored whiskey and instead drink Canadian!


06-03-2007, 12:55
Very interesting hypothesis. But without more support at this point it falls under the "correlation is not causation" category.

The Prohibition-destroyed-rye hypothesis seems to me to be more plausible, on the face of it. It has the advantage over the first in that there is more historical support. Canadian whiskeys became identified as "rye" which created some market confusion and changes to drinking/taste habits that would be hard to overcome.

Regarding the "lighter" movement for the American consumer, I have heard this mentioned many times in other contexts. For example, American beer suffered the same fate. Then another round of lighten-ing came about in the 1970s when consumers turned more and more to clear liquors, and distillers responded with lower proof whiskeys to appeal to this trend (although changes in tax laws had a hand in it as well).

At least, this is my understanding of the history. I'd love to hear what others have to say about it.

06-03-2007, 13:39
Thanks for all these responses and to Roger's thoughtful comments in particular.

Joe, it is just a hypothesis of my own: something almost casually arrived at but against a background of 30 years' tasting, reading and thinking about whiskey.

Many valid ideas can and do originate right here: whereas years back people had to buy books to get their knowledge, a lot of useful knowledge can be gleaned here. Of course, just asserting something doesn't make it true but I am not merely asserting but rather, offering an opinion, an informed one I hope.

On the substance of the matter, the fact that rye tastes better in most whiskey cocktails than bourbon (with which I agree) and that we are in the midst of a cocktail renaissance does not of itself account for the rye renaissance in my view. Rye tasted better in cocktails in the 1930's, too, but still rye lost its ascendancy (and had done so for a while, since the late 1800's).

Does the current cocktail craze account for some of the interest in genuine rye whiskey? No question.

But it was trailblazers like Michael Jackson who led the way to the modern appreciation of rye whiskey, and Michael drank it neat. He did this not because he was trying to project any kind of macho ethos, but simply because as a Briton, he was used to sampling whisky neat. Scotch was originally drunk neat, or just with water (no ice), and Jackson applied the same approach to American whiskeys, which was valid because they also originally were drunk neat (or just with a little water, which affected proof only). In doing this, he hit upon the uniqueness and value of rye whiskey, I think. Had the first writers (I mean, since the 1970's) dealt only with cocktails, I think rye whiskey would not have achieved the acute interest it has in connoisseur circles.


06-03-2007, 15:03
Man, I have to go to a writing class or something. Every time I post, it seems that some one takes my post as an attack on them. If I'm not mistaken, I thought that Gary read a ton on Beer, Wine, and Spirits. I was ACTUALLY asking if he read it some where. That's all, no disrespect intended. I was just wondering if in some obscure article from decades ago this was brought up.

Sorry Gary and Roger, I will try to be a better writer in the future.

06-03-2007, 15:36
Joe, please don't take it that way, I was just explaining where I got the idea and why I think it might have some validity. I didn't take what you said as an affront in any way.

I am aware of the ideas about Prohibition and cocktails and I respect that approach - it may play a role, but the ice idea is just something that hit me that may in fact prove useful to understand some of the history.

Ice works great with a low-to-medium ryed bourbon -less so with a high rye bourbon and least so with a rye whiskey. If rye started to decline (I understand from the 1880's onwards) in relation to bourbon, and seeing as ice started to be used seriously from about that time onwards, I speculate that its growth in drinks may explain rye's slow descent from then.

I could be entirely wrong!


06-04-2007, 11:52
Getting back to the original question, and accepting the hypothesis that the use of ice in drinks increased significantly after World War II (which I think may be shakey), it would seem very chicken-and-egg because it's one more example of consumers wanting something lighter, less flavorful and more refreshing.

One then needs to accept another shakey hypothesis, which is that bourbon was inherently more compatible with this new trend than rye.

Problem is, bourbon sales suffered horribly too.

My theory as to why more bourbon distilleries survived has more to do with business structure. Virtually all of the big rye brands came to be owned by big corporations that had no vested interest in American whiskey, while many bourbon brands and even commodity producers (such as Heaven Hill in that era) were independent and family owned.

Also, bourbon tended to be popular in the South and West, where people were more conservative and less prone to "fads," whereas the rye heartland was in the East, where the fads were mostly originating.

06-04-2007, 13:09
I think ubiquitous ice usage for drinks goes back much earlier than post-WW II. Industrial refrigeration had made cheap ice abundant from the later 1800's - ice e.g., is referred to numerous times (taken for granted almost) in Jerry Thomas' bartender manuals of the 1860's-1880's (there were 2 editions over this period).

Another example is a story I read circa 1910 (sorry I can no longer supply the reference) where a commercial traveller in a hotel in the south ordered a "bottle of corn whiskey and ice".

The post-WW II picture viz. sharply increased ice usage does apply to the U.K. though and there we saw arguably something similar: blended scotch lost much of its smokiness over this period. When you chill scotch, it gives the smoky taste (to my mind) an unpleasant metallic edge. Ice usage grew a lot in the U.K. from the 1950's onwards, assisted also by warm summers in the 70's. The same thing happened perhaps in the U.S. viz. scotch consumption in that ice in drinks, while not new in the U.S., would have been novel as applied to scotch since scotch had a small sale before WW I but a much bigger one after as a result of Prohibition.

True, Manhattan cocktails made with rye do arguably taste better than made with bourbon (or low-rye recipe bourbon at any rate) so one might have thought rye would survive (at least as much as bourbon did) for this reason alone. Still, the distinctiveness of rye in cocktails (and certain mixed drinks), given their sweetness and the other flavors in them, probably wasn't enough to ensure rye's popularity.

The industrial and social factors Chuck mentions certainly played a role, but try a tot of 4 year old rye over the rocks and compare it to a 4 year old bourbon on the rocks: the rye is harder to drink and I think few people would have acquired the taste for iced rye vs. iced bourbon.

If, as noted in Bready's 1990 article on rye, sales of rye (as a grain) became inferior to those of corn from the 1880's onwards, this suggests to me the increasing habit of drinking iced whiskey had something to do with it.


06-04-2007, 15:03
The industrial and social factors Chuck mentions certainly played a role, but try a tot of 4 year old rye over the rocks and compare it to a 4 year old bourbon on the rocks: the rye is harder to drink and I think few people would have acquired the taste for iced rye vs. iced bourbon.

If, as noted in Bready's 1990 article on rye, rye sales became inferior to those of corn from the 1880's onwards, this suggests to me the increasing habit of drinking iced whiskey had something to do with it anyway.


I have watched this thread grow without contributing because as I have mentioned before I don't like "iced" bourbon or rye. the Ice, at least to my taste, blunts the flavor too much leaving too much "ethanol taste"

However, I can see where Gary is coming from. If the flavor is muted it will be the corn sweetness and vanilans from the wood which would suffer the most. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this than most because I prefer bourbon Manhattans. But when It comes to Old Fashions I prefer rye. The added sugar, perhaps makes up for the muting of the corn/wood sweetness. I go pretty lean on the sweet vermouth with Manhattans so there isn't much added sweetness there. Just my .02