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Rye whiskey sees exceptional growth in US

Rye whiskey is fast becoming the on-trend spirit in the US, riding on the overall rise in popularity of American whiskeys and Bourbon to grow in volume sales by 536% since 2009, according to supplier figures.

The rye variation of Diageo’s Bulleit Bourbon has tapped into the growth of the category (Photo: Diageo)

Data compiled by the Distilled Spirits Council (Discus) shows that rye whiskey volumes have grown from 88,000 9 litre cases in 2009 to over half a million cases (561,000) in 2014.

The growth in the category’s value over the same period is also exceptional, rising from slightly over $15 million (£9.6m) in supplier revenues in 2009 to over $106 million (£68m) in 2014 – a six-fold increase.

This represents approximately $300m (£192.5m) in retail sales according to David Ozgo, chief economist at Discus.

“The growth of rye whiskey has been phenomenal, given that as late as 2000, rye volumes were virtually nonexistent with only a handful of brands in the US market,” said Ozgo.

“By 2014, there were over 100 brands, and the sheer numbers tell the story.  While it still represents a small share of the overall American whiskey category, its growth is skyrocketing,” he said.

Big brands have been noticing the revival of rye in recent years by releasing variants of their labels, such as Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. Diageo’s popular “craft” offering, Bulleit, also has a rye version.

Analysing the figures, Ozgo has attributed rye’s revival to the growing interest in American whiskeys in general from 2009 to 2014. Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey volumes grew 28.5% and revenues rose 46.7%, he claimed.

Discus also points to the heritage of the category, and how provenance and story-telling has become a key factor in consumers’ choices.

Rye whiskey was the favoured grain of the East Coast, and George Washington even had the largest rye whiskey distillery in early America on his Virginia estate. The historic distillery has been reconstructed and was opened to the public in 2007.

The recent revival of cocktail culture also has a part to play, in particular classic cocktails that before Prohibition were often rye-based.

Theories as to how the spirit fell out of favour in the aftermath of prohibition include the easing ability to import other whiskies from Ireland, Scotland and Canada growing in the 20th century.

Also, rye whiskey’s distinct, spicy flavour fell out of fashion in preference for smoother tastes that were catered for by these imported whiskies and softer Bourbon.

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