Booze You Can Use

The Rye Shortage Is Upon Us: Nation’s Bartenders Battle for Remaining Bottles

Cult brands like Whistlepig are retailing for upwards of $65 a bottle.
Cult brands like Whistlepig are retailing for upwards of $65 a bottle. Photo: Whiskey Intelligence

First there was the Great Angostura Bitters Shortage of late ‘09, and now this. Bartenders at the nicer cocktail bars across the land have been noticing a marked shortage of rye whiskey over the last year or so, as the country’s better distillers run out of supplies and wait for new batches to finish aging. When the cocktail renaissance kicked into high gear a couple of years ago, rye suddenly became a must-have ingredient for every cocktail geek and bartender, following decades of obscurity getting dusty on the shelves of liquor stores.

“Here’s what I think happened,” says Brian MacGregor, bar manager at the soon-to-open San Francisco restaurant Locanda. “About two years or so ago, all these rye producers saw this uptick in sales after they’d been happy selling off all this back stock. Then they started selling out and realized ‘Oh shit.’ They didn’t react quickly enough to the demand, and it takes four years to produce a proper rye.”

These days a legion of cocktail fans, partly encouraged by Don Draper, prefer a rye Old Fashioned to a bourbon one, and virtually every cocktail menu in America features a rye cocktail or two. Bartenders in San Francisco and elsewhere are consequently arguing with distributors over who gets the remaining available cases of Michter’s and Van Winkle Reserve.

For those still among the unindoctrinated, rye is distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain, often with barley and corn mixed in but occasionally made from 100% rye. The result, according to Gourmet (from June ‘09) is “spicy [and] peppery,” and Imbibe magazine says it has a “more assertive flavor than the rounder, sweeter bourbon.” Like gin, American rye came flying back into fashion as an essential ingredient of classic cocktails, right around the second wave of the current cocktail renaissance in the middle of the decade.

The average consumer these days is mostly likely to find smatterings of Wild Turkey 101 out there, as well as Jim Beam’s longtime standby with the yellow label which never left the market, and some older ten- and twelve-year-old bottles that retail for $50 and up, but even that stuff is disappearing.

According to Giuseppe Gonzalez, an owner at Painkiller in NYC, the bigger bars are hoarding all the good stuff. “The stuff is sold before it’s even made,” he says. “We primarily use Old Overholt Rye for mixing, which is excellent, but I’m also a fan of Rittenhouse Bonded 100-proof and I haven’t seen a bottle of that in a while. The difference in proof becomes important in certain drinks. Every week I just ask my distributor if they have it. We just have to wait this one out.” Brooke Arthur at S.F.’s Prospect concurs that the higher proof stuff “brings out the flavors of the other ingredients much better,” and the only brands you can find now are too pricey to put in a featured drink.

But how to survive until the shortage ends? Arthur says to beware of crappy, improperly aged bottles hitting the market, but she likes Overholt in her Catcher in the Rye cocktail. Kevin Diedrich at Burritt Room actually made an end-run to the East Coast to snatch up a few cases of Rittenhouse, and he says Overholt will do in a pinch. Gonzalez says the Canadian ryes are OK, and Duggan McDonnell at S.F.’s Cantina (where one of our favorite drinks, the Carmen Amaya, is made with rye) says, “Beam is alright, but it’s for amateurs,” and he prefers the Wild Turkey rye, which his distributor frequently runs out of. MacGregor is looking forward to a batch of five-year-aged rye from cult distiller Whistlepig.

“Next year, it’ll be even worse,” says MacGregor, who notes that he’ll mostly be making only top-shelf rye drinks at a higher price point. Good news for rye lovers in couple of years, though: There’s likely to be a glut of the stuff on the market as the batches that are currently aging get bottled, so prices will probably drop quite a bit.

Earlier: The Comeback Kid [Imbibe]
Tasting Table Tipples Coast to Coast, Names Top Cocktails [Grub Street]
Barrel-Aged Cocktails: These Are A Thing Now [Grub Street]

The Rye Shortage Is Upon Us: Nation’s Bartenders Battle for Remaining