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Distilleries Still Scrambling To Boost Production In Wake Of Rye Shortage

June 18, 2012

Rye, once a niche drink, has ridden the cocktail renaissance to become a mixology star. But because its rise came so quickly and unexpectedly, distillers have been dealing with a Rye shortage that has them struggling to meet demand. “We didn’t see this coming,” says Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe. “It’s going to take us a couple of years to catch up.”

“Nobody saw the Rye spike coming,” agrees Wild Turkey’s longtime master distiller Jimmy Russell. “We’re completely out for the next two years.”

Rye shipments have grown by more than 20% annually over the past several years. Jim Beam, whose Jim Beam Rye, Ri1 and Old Overholt brands make it the industry’s single-largest rye distiller, reported a 46.7% increase in Rye shipments between 2009 and 2011.

Whiskey’s aging process makes it difficult to respond quickly to increases in demand (most American whiskies sit in wood for at least four years). So while distilleries have ramped up production of Rye, most of it is still aging in warehouses.

The shortage is particularly severe for smaller-production labels such as Heaven Hill Distilleries’ Rittenhouse 100—a brand particularly beloved by mixologists. Rittenhouse 100 virtually disappeared from the bar scene in some cities in 2010 after it became mixologists’ go-to rye for Manhattans.

Bars lucky enough to find some of the harder-to-procure labels have been known to stockpile what they can—a practice that makes supply even harder to find. “We regularly run out—even at the bars and restaurants that we try to keep stocked,” says Raj Peter Bhatka, founder and CEO of WhistlePig, a cult distiller whose Rye has recently come into fashion with bartenders.

“The only way around it is to bounce between brands,” says Naren Young, bar manager at New York’s Saxon & Parole. “Often, if you’re creating drinks with a certain rye, it has a certain flavor profile and will taste different if you sub in a different brand.”

But that could mean an inconsistent experience for customers, as the most sought-after ryes are higher-proof products like Rittenhouse 100 and Wild Turkey 101, which bartenders claim provide stronger, spicier backbones to their cocktails. “A Manhattan made with an 80-proof Rye has a less dominant whiskey profile than one made with the Rittenhouse 100,” says Paul McGee, director of cocktail development at Bub City in Chicago. “If you have to use a lower-proof rye, you also have to adjust the proportions.”

The good news for rye lovers is that new supply will hit the market in the next couple of years. Until then, bar owners may just have to stockpile what they can while they wait for Rye reinforcements to arrive.

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