Rye Oh My!

Rediscovering one of Virginia’s favorite spirits.

Rye whiskey is one of the original local spirits. It’s been distilled here in Virginia since the 1700s; in fact, George Washington started one of the first successful commercial rye distilleries in the country in 1797, says Dale William Neal of VirginiaRye.com. And, like whiskies distilled from corn or wheat, it can be made entirely from locally sourced ingredients. Neal says rye was popular here until Prohibition, then largely disappeared until craft distilleries were reintroduced in 2006. Now, Neal’s Virginia Rye Whiskey Trail is 18 makers strong.

Rye must contain at least 51 percent rye grain in the mash and be aged in new charred oak barrels. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. In practice, says Neal, that creates a spirit with a distinct flavor profile. “It has complexity and assertiveness, but rounds out with barrel aging much quicker than other grains,” he explains. “Some folks prefer the heat of bourbon. I love the combination of smooth and spicy you get from rye.”

Inspired by his enthusiasm for the spirit and the people who make it (“I would be hard-pressed to offer up a more inviting group”), Neal started his informational and promotional website in 2019. His goal is to claim the category for Virginia. “‘Virginia Rye’ in a decade or two has the potential to be recognized in the company of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee, Irish, and Scotch whiskies,” he says. To that end, he offers a map of makers, history, and merchandise—and a cheerful determination to make Virginia Rye a household name. VirginiaRyeWhiskey.com.


This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue.

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