Bourbon and Rye: Whiskeys as American as Apple Pie

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I know, bourbon and rye as American as apple pie? The case for bourbon is easy to make since it is officially, and legally, woven into the fabric of American history. In 1964, Congress declared that bourbon was “America’s Native Spirit,” and in 2007, designated September of that year “National Bourbon Heritage Month.” Distilling bourbon had, of course, started centuries earlier. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, in the 1700s, colonial Americans started converting grains to whiskey to make them easier to transport, and to prevent excess crops from going bad. Belk Library at Elon University states corn was particularly favored by the colonialists because the barley commonly used in Great Britain did not fare well on American soil. As a result, their attention turned to growing and distilling corn.

But don’t count rye out of the historic picture just yet. Dave Pickerell – who spent fourteen years as the master distiller at Maker’s Mark, and is now a consultant for the craft distilling movement — told Garden and Gun that authenticity is key in crafting historical cocktails. “And the fact is, the first American cocktails had rye in them,” Pickerell explained. “The whiskey rations during the Revolutionary War were in rye. If you want to be authentic, you need rye on the bar.”

It goes deeper than that — rye has presidential ties too. At Mount Vernon, George Washington had his own distillery which produced rye whiskey. According to Mount Vernon’s website, the original mash bill called for 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn and 5 percent malted barley. Washington would then sell the product to his neighbors. The distillery was installed in 1797 and 1798, and by 1799 (the year of Washington’s death) was already a commercial success. With almost 11,000 gallons produced in 1799, Washington’s whiskey operation was the largest at the time. 

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