Recreating the empire of rye

by Courtney Llewellyn

Tom Potter, president of New York Distilling Company, is convinced most good ideas are born over a drink. That’s how, back at the 2015 Craft Distillers Conference, many other distillers were convinced that those in the Empire State should reach back to New York’s excellent history of rye whiskey distilling, brand the libation regionally and “sell our cool products.”

The federally trademarked certification for New York rye whiskey came soon after, stating the end product is “whiskey derived from rye grown, distilled and aged in New York State. Barrel entry proof must be no greater than 115 proof. Must meet federal ‘Straight Rye’ requirements.”

Potter spoke about the state-specific beverage during the recent virtual Grains Week seminars. “America has long been known for corn-based bourbon – and it’s still the big share of the market,” he explained. “So why did New York small distillers want to bet their futures on rye whiskey? They smelled the opportunity from the confluence of history, geography and consumer behavior.”

The history is pretty epic: George Washington distilled rye. The geography made sense: Rye grows well in colder climates. By its nature, it’s a spicy whiskey. Potter noted drinkers tend to start with the easiest, sweetest options and then get more adventurous. The Empire Rye Whiskey Association believes rye lies squarely in the path of where whiskey is heading, according to Potter.

Geography ties into the idea of a New York terroir as well. Ten years ago, grower Rick Pedersen worked with Cornell University to recreate strains of rye that were common in New York a century ago. One variety, Horton, was thriving after five years.

“It fits in well in an organic rotation, it helps with weed control and it breaks up insect and disease cycles,” Pedersen explained. “It has more value than just the grains I harvest.” He farms 800 organic acres, and the Horton rye fits into the category of higher value grains he’s looking for, and for the quality of the whiskey. “Even though yield is low [compared to more traditional, large-scale grains], it makes a superior product,” he said. “The lower yield is just part of growing an older grain.”

The Empire Rye project started with just five distilleries (three in New York City and two upstate). It’s now up to 30 distilleries. And Potter thinks the future for Empire Rye looks pretty bright.

“In this industry, you have to think five, 10 years ahead. Our hope is that people will soon think of the Northeast when they think about rye – that’s where it should be from,” he stated.

“It’s easy to see how delineations of wine regions allow consumers to tie experiences to areas. It’s that sense of putting a frame around it,” he continued. “I’m hoping that that same logic will carry over to distilled spirits. I think we have a good reputation for craft beverages in New York.”

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