The Resurgence of Rye


It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is a town that loves to drink. Whiskey has been a nostalgic reminder of America’s wild west and a classic liquor for well over a century. But in the last five years, it seems that local patrons have started to gravitate towards the classic but oft forgotten rye whiskey.

This spirit is characterized by it’s earthy and smoky qualities that come from being aged in charred oak barrels, a process very specific to Western Pennsylvania. Restaurants like Butcher and The Rye have made a name for themselves with great food but their variety of whiskeys are equally responsible for their success. Wigle Whiskey has been brewing since 2011 and is the first local whiskey distillery to operate in the area since prohibition. Both of these establishments have become hugely popular with the reemergence of rye whiskey.

But what caused this sudden interest in an American whiskey that no one has made a fuss about in years? To understand that, it’s important to understand this classic spirit’s roots in our city. Many believe that Pittsburgh was the birthplace of American whiskey throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s.

Western Pennsylvania started producing whiskey out of necessity when local farmers found that it was far more profitable to turn their grain and corn into liquor which they could then transport to Eastern markets and sell at higher prices. The transport of this whiskey often took up to two years and this was what accidentally created the first aged whiskey in America. By 1808 the golden standard of whiskey, Monongahela Rye, was being produced abundantly in our region.

Wigle Whiskey/ Facebook
Wigle Whiskey/ Facebook

But what eventually killed this great aged whiskey was prohibition. With the ban of alcohol in 1920, aged spirits became incredibly rare. Because of the need for secrecy in producing liquor, quick brewing methods became a necessity and aged whiskey became a thing of the past.

American rye was replaced by spirits like Wild Turkey and Canadian ryes which were really only made for one thing, to get drinkers drunk fast. This quickly muddied the reputation of American rye and caused a severe dip in it’s production for several decades.

But in 2006, Heaven Hill Distillery’s Rittenhouse rye won top North American whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and thus triggered the resurgence of rye. The 18-year-old whiskey beat out a number of high end bourbons and reminded even the most refined drinkers that aged rye is where it’s at.

Since then, bars have had trouble keeping their shelves stocked due to the high demand. Rye whiskey production has gone up exponentially and can barely keep up with customer needs. Rye may soon be hard to come by because of this.

So forget about bourbon and scotch for just a little while and submerge yourself into the wonderful world of rye whiskey; while you still can.