We know it’s tempting to cram your cooler to the brim with cheap beers this weekend, but summer is just getting started; the cold ones will be there to quench your thirst all season long. Instead, we suggest spending some much-deserved deck time on this distinctly American holiday with a distinctly American booze: rye whiskey.
These days, bourbon may get a bit more shine in the mainstream, but distillers are increasingly finding new ways to make its spicier cousin stand out. While rye’s basic rule hasn’t changed—it must be distilled from a mash-bill of at least 51 percent rye—the whiskey has evolved considerably in recent years as new makers have entered the fray free of the restrictions that can bog down heritage brands.
For proof, consider the case of , which has racked up several awards for its straight rye despite its relative newcomer status in the craft whiskey world. The Louisville-based distillery actually dates back to the late 1800s, but hit the skids when Prohibition was passed and officially shut down shop in the 1930s. In 2014, however, Peerless came back from the dead and a year later, put the rye into production—the first time back in the barrel in a century.
Upon the two-year’s release in 2017, the blind testers at Whisky Advocate named it among the —the only rye on the list, from the only craft distiller. So why has Peerless made such big waves in such a short amount of time? Start with two technical advantages that enhance its taste.
The Sweetest Thing
Most whiskey distillers have long used a process called sour mashing to make their batches taste consistent every time. The more unwanted bacteria that grow in the batch, the worse the whiskey could taste—or, at the very least, it wouldn’t resemble the last batch. And if your product wavers in flavor, customers will catch on quick.
So to control bacterial growth and thus continuity between batches, distillers take a certain amount of mash (grains, water, and yeast) that’s already been fermented and distilled and add it back into the current mash. The acid from that old mash—known as the sour, or “spent” mash—naturally lowers the pH balance of the current mash to the distiller’s desired levels, ensuring consistency. This is exactly how you make sourdough bread.
The problem? To clean up the extra slop, you need to distill the batch at a higher proof. And the higher the proof, the more neutral the resulting spirit. “So in the process of cutting that stuff out,” says Caleb Kilburn, Peerless’ Head Distiller, “you’re also cutting out some really good grain flavors” from the original mash.
By necessity, legacy distillers can’t fuss with their formulas, but the new kids on the block can. Because the Peerless crew wasn’t bound to any tradition, they were able to start at square one and not adhere to the usual sour mashing standards. Instead, from the first batch, Kilburn and co. used a completely clean, stable source of yeast without having to add in any sour mash—a process called sweet mashing.
With only fresh ingredients, Kilburn was able to distill his batch at a lower proof—more on that in a minute—and pull in more florals and grains, leading to more fermentation than otherwise would have occurred in sour mashing. “And I believe that results in a heartier flavor profile,” he says.
The Burden of Proof
Then there’s Peerless’ second distinct edge in process design. By law, all bourbons and ryes must go into charred, new oak barrels at no higher than 125 proof. Many distillers hug that line as close as possible for one simple reason: Barrels aren’t cheap. So the more concentrated your distillate, the less water you have to use, and thus, the fewer barrels.
The catch is at the end of the maturation process, the whiskey could clock in at upward of 130 proof—simply too strong for most people to hang with. To bring the booze back down to a palatable proof, then, you have to add water and recoup the volume you forwent on the front end. “And that water dilutes the flavors you worked so hard to create in the barrel,” Kilburn says.
But Peerless doesn’t have this problem. Kilburn puts his whiskey into the barrel at 107 proof and includes water from the jump. That way, the water isn’t a dilution agent, but rather, a crucial ingredient that ages and pulls its own flavors out of the oak. In the end, you’re left with a rye that’s sweeter, brighter, and more robust than most others, with fewer harsher tannins, says Kilburn.
It’s not that other distillers wouldn’t love to follow suit—“they’re just bound by the chains of history,” Kilburn says. “As you’d imagine, things have come light years since then. But the need to produce a consistent process has hampered their ability to change.”
Rye: Your New Favorite Summer Spirit
Most ryes are spicy, peppery, and oaky, full stop. Get your hands on a great one, however, and you can open up a world of cocktail possibilities. The hallmarks of Peerless’ practice—a strictly sweet mash, no water added, and bottled at barrel strength—shine through in the final flavor notes of maple, brown sugar, and light citrus sweetness. “That’s why a lot of people call our whiskey a bourbon drinker’s rye,” says Kilburn.
And it’s why the straight rye feels right at home filling in for bourbon in an Old Fashioned. Whip up the recipe below for a slightly sweeter, summery spin on a classically stiff gentleman’s drink. “You’ll get to experience the beautiful, natural whiskey flavors in their fullest form,” says Peerless Single Barrel Curator and Mixologist John Wadell—and you’ll kick off the season in absolute style.
The Peach Tree Old Fashioned
- 2 oz.
- 1 tsp. barrel-aged maple syrup
- 4 large peach slices
- 2 dashes
- Orchid for garnish
Directions: Muddle two peach slices in a mi glass, add all other ingredients, and stir with ice for about 15 seconds.
Double fine strain into a rocks glass full of crushed ice and garnish with remaining peach slices and orchid.