Forget the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (at least for three minutes), we’re all about the Empire Rye Trail. We traveled to upstate New York and one of the oldest cities in America to check out one of the go-to spots on the trail, Albany Distilling Co.
Nestled in between the Adirondacks and the Catskill Mountains, Albany was once one of the largest cities in America. And up until Prohibition, New York was also said to have grown around 90 percent of all the rye in the country. In that tradition, an effort in the past decade has been underway to establish a distinct whiskey style for the state that gives a nod to its rye whiskey-making heritage.
One of the distilleries leading the pack is Albany Distilling Co.
“The nice part about New York especially is that we grow some of the best rye in the world. It grows really well here and it's plentiful,” Albany Distilling Co. COO Rick Saccone told us. “To rival the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, it was logical for us as a collective to create the Empire Rye Trail. You can come to New York, and you can go and visit 20 different distilleries that are all making Empire Rye.”
Founded in 2011, Albany Distilling Co. is the city’s first legal distillery since Prohibition. Using locally sourced ingredients, that’s not where the local tie ends. Their series of whiskeys are named after the 1983 Pulitzer winning novel, Ironweed. Fittingly, it’s set during the Great Depression and the lead character, Francis Phelan, is portrayed as a boozy vagrant originally from Albany. The film adaptation starred Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
“It’s a really important part of Albany’s cultural history,” CEO John Curtin explained to us.
“What's really cool about New York is that it gets really cold and it gets really hot so that big swing in temperature change is going to allow a lot of expansion and a lot of contraction,” Rick said. “As our whiskeys age for four years in a barrel, that means there’s four years in and out of that wood, and four years of pulling caramelization from the barrel. Our climate in our opinion is perfect. It's not too dry, it's not too moist. That big temperature swing is really going to allow a real rapid aging.”
It’s pretty common for most ryes to have really high rye content with mash bills made up of 95% rye. For it to be considered an Empire Rye though, that rye content has to be 75%.
“Our rye whiskey, because it's not 95% but it's 75%, we’re backing off that spice a little bit,” Rick told us. “The reason we chose 25% malted wheat for our Empire Rye is because it’s a soft grain. Rye has spice — it’s pepper, cinnamon, and cloves. We get pushback that rye is too spicy for some customers. Because our rye is balanced with wheat, they play off each other well so you get the interesting flavors but it’s not going to overwhelm you. It’s not intimidating and it’s an easy rye to drink.”
What’s in the box
Albany Distilling Co. Ironweed Empire Rye
75% rye, 25% malted wheat
Albany Distilling Co. Ironweed Straight Bourbon Whiskey
60% corn, 25% rye, 15% malted barley
The production of both bourbon and rye are virtually identical: 100 whole grain mashed, fermented, distilled, and placed in brand new charred American white oak barrels. It is the ingredients that distinguish them. Bourbon is made from mostly corn, while rye is made with mostly rye; they source both grains from New York State. Corn gives bourbon its distinctive sweet flavor and notes of dried fruit, while rye makes a drier, spicier whiskey.
Sign up to RackHouse Whiskey Club by April 10, 2022 to try some.