Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chris Middleton on the 'Myth' of Pre-Prohibition Rye Prominence


In every field of endeavor there is received wisdom. Since it is what just about everyone in the field believes and has been taught for generations, it's usually true, but now and then it's not. From my first days in the whiskey business I was told that rye dominated before Prohibition and was replaced by bourbon after repeal. Discussions about this subject usually center on why that was the case, not on whether or not it was true.

So it was with great interest that I read in David Wondrich's recent Whisky Advocate article his statement, "It's a modern myth that rye was more popular than bourbon before Prohibition." Since I had mentioned the contrary received wisdom in my post, commenter Florin wondered, "who is right?"

Chris Middleton provides the answer:


On the post about rye volumes, bourbon superseded rye after the Civil War. Only in 1908, when rye production reached a 48.5 percent share of whiskey distilling, did it look like it was rivaling bourbon’s dominance. For the last 150 years, bourbon in name and its corn hegemony has led as America’s favorite whiskey.

The U.S. Government’s collection of distilling data was not great from 1790. After excise taxes were struck down no surveillance occurred and no production was reported. Between 1790 and 1810, rye’s volume share was bouncing around 60 – 85 percent. What data was collected before the Civil War indicates rye remained the leading whiskey style made. After the War, in 1867, the IRS began capturing distilling data as total ‘grain.’ It was not until 1878 that it was broken out as rye and bourbon, with rye holding a 38 percent share. Whiskey production had shifted out west with population and grain cultivation to Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and surrounding grain-producing states.

The other major issue that clouds accurate quantification of this whiskey split is being able to distinguish between straight, corn and blended whiskey (rectified, compounded). When the Trust was at its height in the late 1880s and producing an alleged 95 percent of neutral spirit, most of which ended up becoming 'whiskey,' the grain was almost exclusively corn. So terms such as true rye and bourbon become somewhat meaningless in aggregate.

4 comments:

Sam Komlenic said...

Although rye and bourbon were the dominant styles in any period, there was also, as mentioned, other styles in the mix.

These also included malt whiskey, which was being made by a number of the pre-Pro Pennsylvania rye distillers, further clouding the actual percentages.

I tend to concur with Chris and EllenJ that, though rye was indeed dominant early in the game, once industrialization kicked in, bourbon rose to the occasion, never to be dethroned.

Florin said...

Fascinating, thanks for looking into this and setting the record straight!

Reid Mitenbuler said...

Speaking of received wisdom, I think that post-Prohibition "rye" is another interesting example. Since the modern "rye renaissance," the internet has seen quite a bit of blather linking the spirit's return to shows like Mad Men, etc. etc.

That's another discussion, but in my own research, I've come across a few stray bits of commentary from the 1950s and 1960s that speak of the "rye misnomer." Basically, if a whiskey was made by a company with Canadian roots (Seagram's, Hiram Walker) people automatically called it rye. But many of these whiskies (like Seagram's Seven Crown) were made primarily from corn. The GNS were corn and the straight whiskies used in the blend were bourbon.

The data I've seen indicates that, in 1963, roughly half the whiskey sold in the U.S. was straight bourbon. If you count all the bourbon that was used for blends, 75 percent of the whiskey consumed in the country was bourbon. Somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of consumption was imported scotch.

Does this seem right to folks? Anything to contradict this? I'm just curious.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Seagram's Seven Crown is and always has been an American blended whiskey and American blends have always been tallied separately, certainly not as straight rye.

Calling Canadian whisky 'rye' is generally only done in Canada and perhaps parts of the American upper midwest.

Also, contrary to popular belief, while American blended whiskey usually contains GNS, there is no GNS in Canadian whisky. The blending whisky in Canadian is like the grain whisky in blended scotch, nearly neutral but aged in oak, so it's technically whisky.