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Whiskey Tales

Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories

Styles of Rock & Styles of Rye

January 2021
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Some friends from work and I were heading out to lunch when one volunteered to drive so he could show off his new custom car stereo. As we were climbing in, he asked me, "What kind of music do you like?" "Rock" was my one-word response. He fired the engine and pushed the rock station preset on his new receiver, and the band Rush came on blaring. I could instantly appreciate the quality of his speakers as I reactively started air-drumming along. Then a voice from the backseat shouted over the bass and drum solo part, "You know, Rush really isn't a rock band." The two of us in the front almost bumped heads as we both spun inward towards the center to flash a look of disgust to the rear seat. He went on to shout, "Rock bands have four musicians and play songs with structured patterns; Rush is a progressive-fusion band."

The guy in the back seat is from the IT department, and his whole world is broken down into ones and zeros.  He spent the rest of the way to Five Guys shouting over the stereo about the technical differentiation between music genres. As the car was parked and the stereo silenced, the driver, now pissed that his opportunity to show off his new system was interfered with, made a scolding statement to our IT lunchmate, "I don't know who you're talking to or where you're getting your information,  but EVERYBODY knows Rush is rock!" And with that, our little IT buddy became butt-hurt, said almost nothing for the rest of lunch, doesn't go to lunch with us anymore, and my work computer runs very, very slowly now.  

In truth, he wasn't wrong. Or, at least he was just as right as we were in our opinions of rock. We all know there are no laws or regulations about the topic; it's just a collectively held group-think that helps us communicate an intangible idea to other people, in this case, an opinion about a style of art. It's the same when talking about any art, be it paintings, music, or whiskey. Yes, there are laws about the production and labeling of whiskey. Still, most of what we imbibers like to talk about as far as our preferences go is unregulated, group-think, opinions. But having names for differing styles within an art is very useful in communication. It's what allows me to relay in one word a preference of a conglomeration of thousands of different songs, enabling the driver to push the correct button on his stereo receiver.  

As rye whiskey is becoming popular again, we are having more and more choices of rye. When only a few years ago there were five or six to choose from, now there are 20 or more at a decent beverage shop. Just as it is useful to have names for our subcategories of music, the usefulness of having names for our categories of rye is greater than ever. Where a couple of years ago, it would be sufficient to simply say, "I like rye," that statement has become a little too broad now with the explosion in the selection. I think it's useful for us to collectively agree on some names for the subcategories within the world of rye. And, just like Rush being a rock band can be argued, so can any of this.  

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As we all know, in America, any whiskey that is made with at least 51 percent rye grain is rye whiskey. There are other rules in other countries, but let's not get bogged down with that. In the U.S., there are two big categories of rye whiskey. For the most part, these two groups are defined by the amount of rye in the mash along with the presence, or absence, of corn. Being familiar with these two styles' names, we can more easily communicate what kind of rye we like. 

Over the last five years, I have traveled around visiting distilleries, attending whiskey events and conferences, and talking to people within the whiskey industry. I have been very interested in the rye whiskey industry's resurgence and have been conversing with these folks about what they think of the different styles of rye whiskies. I have found that there is a reasonably solid consensus on the different kinds of rye. 

Here, I will talk over the two main ways to break up the category of rye whiskey; not based on industry data or historical accounts, but rather just the common opinions in the whiskey world. There is room for disagreement, but I hope this will present some common ground in the terminology that will enable us to understand better and communicate about our rye whiskey. 

Ask most rye drinkers and they will tell you the two main types of rye are Monongahela and Maryland. If you think that these rye whiskey monikers such as Maryland or Monongahela style are nothing more than marketing ploys to sell us more of a particular kind of whiskey, I would say you are, to some degree, probably right. Some might even say that they feel it's an outright industry lie! I think that's a little extreme, but if it is a lie, I think it's a very useful lie. Maybe the band Rush, by some definition, really is a progressive-fusion band, whatever that is, and not at all a rock band. But I know when I go into the record shop (old-guy alert!) I mean to say, when I go online to download my music, if I want a Rush album, I know to go to the Rock section. Lie or not, that's useful. 

What is Monongahela Rye?

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Let's first talk about what most think is Monongahela rye. As you may know, the terms "Monongahela rye" and "Pennsylvania rye" are synonyms; you can use them interchangeably. Most distillers and rye enthusiasts that I have spoken with agree that a whiskey made from 100 percent rye grain is a Monongahela style rye. That's the easy part. Where it starts to get dicey is how far can a whiskey deviate from that and still be a Pennsylvania rye.

To begin with, if we consider the historical records of what a Monongahela rye was in the 1800's, and I know I said I wasn't going to do this, but bear with me for a moment, we will find that a 100 percent rye mash may not have been as common back then as many of us now believe it to have been. I spoke with John Cooper of Mountain Laurel Spirits distillery in Bristol, Pennsylvania. He had this to say about early Pennsylvania whiskeys: "Pennsylvania or Monongahela Style is classified by a mash bill of a high percentage of rye grain and a high percentage of malted grain, no corn, and fermented as a sweet mash, not a sour mash." John added, "We looked at records from many of the most famous Pennsylvania distilleries, and they always included rye grain and malted barley in their bill of raw materials."

One can't argue with John's expertise on the subject of Monongahela rye. But a skeptic might feel that John could be biased towards his belief of what a traditional Pennsylvania rye is since what he describes resembles the award-winning Dad's Hat Rye, which is made at his distillery. The fact is, they created Dad's Hat Rye around their understanding of what Monongahela rye is, not the other way around.  And so, we can see from John's understanding that a Monongahela Rye often did have grain other than rye grain in the mash. 

But let's hear from someone not so vested into any one particular distillery's mash bill. Sam Komlenic, Copy Editor for Whisky Advocate magazine, relayed the following to me in a recent conversation, "My research has found that most Monongahela distillers used a portion of malted barley along with rye, but there were those who used malted rye instead of barley, so some whiskey was, indeed, 100 percent rye, but I think they were in the minority."

Braeden Bumpers, Co-Owner and Distiller at McClintock Distillery in Frederick, Maryland, which is not a PA distillery and does not make Monongahela Rye, also agrees that a Pennsylvania rye is a high rye, but not necessarily an all-rye mash. He summarizes what I hear commonly of a Pennsylvania rye this way: "I would categorize the Pennsylvania rye as almost always 100 percent or at least above 90 percent rye mash whiskeys."

With just these three examples, we can see that a Pennsylvania rye could be 100 percent rye or have some barley in it too.

What any of these individuals singularly say is not the point. There are differing views about how much of the grain can be malted or where the breaking point for how much barley can be in the mix. But most agree Monongahela rye is a high-rye, usually 80 percent rye or more.  Yes, there are conflicting opinions, yes there is some documentation that contradicts this. But, by and large, this is the general view of what a Monongahela Rye whiskey is. After speaking with so many on this topic, I would say that anyone can say they disagree with the common view of what a Pennsylvania rye is. Still, I don't think it's reasonable to argue about what the common view is.  

What is Maryland Rye?

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The consensus is that a Maryland Rye is a whiskey made with mostly rye, a lot of corn, and a little bit of barley or maybe another grain. Over the last five years, there is not a single person that I have come in contact with in the whiskey industry with whom I have not conversed about rye styles. The irony with Maryland style rye is that, although there are much fewer choices on the market than a Pennsylvania style rye, there is a much stronger consensus on what constitutes a Maryland Rye. Every whiskey enthusiast and distiller with any opinion on the topic agreed that a rye whiskey with a high corn content and some malted barley is Maryland style whiskey. Where the discrepancies begin with a Maryland rye is that some folks are staunch in this view (of mostly rye, a lot of corn, and a bit of barley), while others will also include the allowance of a fourth grain to be a part of the mix - such as wheat or oats. Some even think that these other grains can replace the barley as the third grain and still fit into a Maryland rye paradigm. 

Brian Treacy, President of Sagamore Spirits, a Maryland distillery, shared his thoughts with me on the topic, "Maryland rye whiskey has corn and malted barley in the mash bill beside just rye grain making the product more approachable, and easier to drink compared to whiskeys that are 100 percent rye. They are more complex than bourbon but sweeter than other, more northern ryes." Sagamore Spirits is now distilling and barreling a Maryland rye, and soon will begin replacing their sourced whiskey for true Maryland Rye. Braeden Bumpers, also a Maryland distiller, says that he sees Maryland Rye as "high ryes, finished with wheat, corn, barley, or a combination of those." Braeden makes his Maryland rye with rye grain, corn, and wheat. 

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Murray Small and a group of volunteers at the Dill Tavern in Dillsburg, PA, are presently working to resurrect the historic tavern's distillery. The Dill Tavern is a wonderfully preserved and renovated living history exhibit. They are very fortunate to have many historical artifacts, including some valuable documents and ledgers from when the tavern was distilling rye whiskey in the 1800s. Murray summarizes perfectly, I think, the general view of the two types of rye whiskey. "Monongahela Rye from Pennsylvania is a high rye whiskey with a spicy, peppery taste profile. Maryland Rye is a softer whiskey with some spiciness from the rye, but usually sweeter from higher amounts of corn in most mash bills." 

As these and other new distilleries are coming along with aging their whiskies, we see more and more choices for high-quality rye whiskeys on the shelf. With more options can come more confusion. Being able to break down a type of whiskey, such as rye whiskey, into subcategories makes things easier for us, the consumers, and for those who wish to serve us. To divide the categories between high-ryes with only a little barley and ryes with corn and barley or another grain is a convenient and useful breaking point. We will see more and more Monongahela and Maryland style ryes on the market in the next few years. As you enjoy these ryes, I hope you will taste and appreciate the differences in the styles. And now that I think of it, I suppose Rush is a progressive-fusion band, within the category of rock.