The New York Craft Distillers Building the Empire Rye Movement | Wine Enthusiast
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The New York Craft Distillers Building the Empire Rye Movement

About six years ago, a group of New York craft distillers began a project to draw attention to their state’s unique rye whiskey tradition. Today, the initial group of six has grown to around 20 producers who are committed to the Empire Rye designation.

New York Distilling Company, Kings County Distillery, Finger Lakes Distilling, Coppersea Distillery, Tuthilltown Spirits and Black Button Distilling set out to make a version of rye that would carry the Empire Rye name and seal of authenticity. The rule was simple—each distillery could produce its own version of Empire Rye that abided by four rules aligning with the state’s Farm Distillery License:

  • 75% of the grain must be grown in New York State
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Aged for a minimum of two years in charred, new oak barrels at no more than 115 proof when aged
  • Must be mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled and aged at a single New York State distillery

“It’s really an opportunity for distilleries in New York to reclaim a rye history that was completely lost,” says Colin Spoelman, founder of Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn. “To build regionalization into American whiskey that for 100 years has been Kentucky and Tennessee only.”

Initially, Spoelman was a little skeptical, but it has become Kings County’s “most in-demand and in-shortest supply whiskey,” he says.

The movement is still in its infancy, Spoelman says, and some distilleries involved lean more into the marketing aspect of the designation than others. For many, it has become a way to market their regional products while differentiating themselves from larger liquor companies.

“It is about place, about process and stakes a high standard of how the whiskey is made. It is inherently a whiskey by a maker, not a huge producer,” says Daric Schlesselman, head distiller of Van Brunt Stillhouse, an early adopter of the label. “To put a flag in the ground that this is quintessential New York State whiskey.”