heirloom rye

With 2021 well underway, there are a few whiskey trends that experts say whiskey enthusiasts should be on the lookout for. One of those trends is the emergence of heirloom rye whiskey.

For those who love craft and independent distillers, heirloom rye whiskey may already be familiar. The bold, subtle flavors of heirloom and heritage grain-based rye whiskey offer a complex and unique experience. It’s sure to capture the attention of those in the know.

Don’t know about heirloom rye whiskey? Don’t worry. We have all the information you need to know to stay current with the latest whiskey trend.

What does “Heirloom” mean?

The word “heirloom” conjures up images of misshapen fruit and vegetables--multi-colored tomatoes or bulbous strawberries from the local farmers’ market. “Heirloom” means different things to different people. But this local, intentional image is a perfect starting point to talk about what “heirloom” means when applied to rye whiskey. 

“Heirloom” rye is distilled from often older, niche grains. These come from seeds either previously lost to growers entirely, or which are missing from the more common industrial grains (used to manufacture rye whiskey on a larger scale). Heirloom rye is distilled from older varieties of grains that were traditionally grown in the late 1800s or early 1900s. This means that, though still rye whiskey, the flavors are unique to the strain of rye from which it is distilled.

These lost grains have been found, rediscovered, and planted, often by small, independent growers obsessed with passing on variety in the rye whiskey space. Modern rye grains have been largely bred and grown to emphasize average traits that are suited to sell whiskey to every palate. With the older heirloom varieties, growers think about the distinct characteristics of the grain first. They put bringing out the flavor of the individual grain before pleasing the flavor preferences of their consumer.

Why don’t all distillers use heirloom rye grains? Heirloom rye grains can sometimes be difficult to work with. They were lost for a reason: some are prone to disease and insects, making them difficult to grow in large amounts.

However, even with their difficulty, some distillers still seek them out. The rarity of these grains means there’s not a huge supply. In 2021, distillers will most likely see the demand for the complex and bold flavors of heirloom rye whiskey increase. This puts the distillers who provide heirloom rye in a great position.

History in a Bottle

Heirloom rye’s flavor is steeped in the history of each individual grain.

The origins of heirloom rye date back to Prohibition, when alcohol production was halted. When alcohol production stopped, so did the agricultural system that fed the distilleries and producers. Demand for grain went down, and to survive, farmers moved on to different crops, which promised more money. But because of this, many strains of grain, specifically of rye, were completely lost to the world. Old crops faded away, not to be grown again until they were found by agricultural engineers looking to reclaim what was lost to time.

However, before these strains were lost, the whiskey distilled from them had a rich history. Rye whiskey was drunk during and before America’s Revolutionary War period and was a huge economic driver for the early colonies.

Every bottle of heirloom rye is a symbol of this history. The grains used to distill the amber elixir come from a long tradition passed down through the generations.

Heirloom Rye Whiskeys to Buy

Now you know about Heirloom Rye whiskey. Want to try it? We have the top whiskeys you should try in 2021. Show any of these off in a Prestige decanter for a perfect combination of style and history.

Six & Twenty Heirloom Rye Whiskey -- $60

Six & Twenty Distillery is known for its handcrafted whiskey. They take the time and effort to reflect the local South Carolina landscape in each bottle. It is no surprise that the distillery created a limited-edition heirloom rye. This rye is sourced from heirloom grains called Seashore Black Rye and aged for three years to deepen the wafer, caramel, and bread pudding taste. Sweet and nutty, this rye is perfect for any drinker looking to find out what a true heirloom rye whiskey is all about.

New Riff Balboa Rye Whiskey -- $50

One of the more well-known craft distillers in the country, New Riff prides itself on creatively tackling new challenges and delivering complex experiences with each whiskey bottle. The emergence of heirloom rye gave this team a chance to deliver a special whiskey that showcases lost grains from local farms.

New Riff’s Balboa Rye Whiskey is distilled from an heirloom called Balboa, which can be traced back to the 1940s. Packed with spiced fruit flavors, this rounded and full-bodied selection has a balanced nose of honeyed fruits and spice, and finishes long with clove, wintergreen, and nutmeg. There are a limited number of bottles, so get it while you can.

Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey -- $40

This is another great example of what locally sourced grain can do for a rye’s flavor. The distillers at Dad’s Hat deliver a four-year aged rye whiskey that packs all the flavors of pre-Prohibition whiskey into each bottle. This is the first straight rye whiskey to come out of Pennsylvania in over 25 years. It’s made from only locally sourced grains that give it a complex, spicy flavor.

On the nose, you will pick up rye grass and burnt sugar, as well as vanilla. The taste reveals pepper and cinnamon, as well as tart fruits like green apple and figs, and it finishes strong with a pinch of cocoa powder.

Sweet and spicy, it’s everything you are looking for in a unique rye whiskey.

Now you are ready for 2021’s latest trend: Heirloom Whiskey. Like the lost grains themselves, these whiskeys will only be around for as long as they last, so if you see one, make sure to add it to your collection. Each sip will give you a taste of history and make you want more.

Are there other heirloom ryes we should add to our list? Let us know in the comments below.