Dark Horse Rye Whiskey

Damian Garcia picks up a tan kernel of rye fallen beside the Dark Horse Distillery’s mill. Other than the single rye berry, the Garcia family’s distillery, suffused with the warm scent of fermentation, is immaculate. “Sorry for the mess,” he says.

No apologies necessary, Damian. The next room over, issuing forth from the bright copper still: A clear font of pure distilled 100-percent rye spirit. Once barreled and aged, it will become the young craft-distillery’s award-winning Reunion Rye Whiskey. The product has quickly become the Garcias’ best seller, thanks to cereal-grain rye, wheat’s ornerier cousin, a humble crop that grows anywhere, even up through the snow.

Whiskey sales of all kinds has been trending up for four years, according to whiskey-industry group the Distilled Spirits Council. Rye whiskey, which must be made from at least 51 percent rye, is among the risers. But 100 percent rye—no corn, no wheat, no barley—has become a kind of elusive snipe among whiskey drinkers drawn by the grain’s sting and spice.

Thirteen miles away from the Garcia’s distillery at the Majestic Steakhouse in downtown Kansas City, the bearded bartender with a well-groomed garrulous crankiness pours a glass of E.H. Taylor Straight Rye, neat. Not a 100-percent rye, but close enough. In his quarter-century of bartending, to his memory, Shawn Moriarty says, no one asked him for a rye, neat, until about 2007, when cocktail culture came on strong.

Now it’s getting hard to keep it on the shelf. Both Moriarty and the Distilled Spirits Council point to the growing appetite for uniqueness, variety and heritage as the reason for the increased popularity.

Two 100-percent, hard-to-find ryes on Moriarty’s “need-to-get” list: WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, a rye made in Vermont, and Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey, made by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling Company.

The relative rarity of a total rye recipe comes down to cost, workability and taste. Less available than corn, wheat and barley, rye costs actually more than the other grains, even though it’s generally cheaper to grow. All-rye mixtures also give distillers fits as it tends to stick to the still. For the Garcias, constant vigilance is the word as their rye mash cooks.

And then there’s rye’s peppery punch, the whole point of a rye whiskey. You know, Americans don’t sit down to eat a bowl of rye flakes in the morning. (Although you could, and maybe should.) Many rye whiskies rely on corn for a little sweetness to balance all that spice, and many reliable standards don’t venture far beyond the 51-percent threshold—see Old Overholt Rye. Even George Washington’s recipe for rye, way back when, was only about 60 percent rye.

The Dark Horse rye garnered a double gold medal and the most points from New York’s Fifty Best, which conducted a blind tasting of 24 American rye whiskeys. The judges said Dark Horse tasted like black pepper, smelled of oak and cherries, and finished clean.

This year, look for more and more whiskey enthusiasts to fall into the rye patch.