While bourbon gets the lion’s share of press when it comes to American whiskey and is often regarded as the American whisky, history tells a more complicated tale. Bourbon derives its name from the historical association with what is now Bourbon County, Kentucky.
The Scots and the Irish who immigrated to the Americas in the mid 1700s colonized areas of Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas first – long before anyone from the British Isles ever set foot into what is now Kentucky, bringing the skill of distilling fermented mash made from grains that were readily available locally. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, that grain was primarily rye. Some remnants of long-abandoned rye whisky distilleries can still be found in the Greater Susquehanna Valley.
Rye has long been known for imparting a spicy, earthy flavor component to the whisky. Some connoisseurs go so far as to elevate rye whisky to the same level of prominence as Islay single-malt Scotch whisky. The Northeast was once a strong rye whisky-producing region, but few distilleries survived Prohibition and popularity of the spirit itself declined. Old Overholt was once distilled in Western Pennsylvania, but is now produced in Kentucky under the ownership of Jim Beam. Catoctin Creek Distillery, located in Purcellville, Virginia, is now producing both aged and unaged small-batch rye whisky, both of which have received high marks amongst tasters. Old Potrero is a 100% rye malt whisky distilled by Anchor Distilling Company (a sister company of Anchor Brewing Company) of San Francisco – a snappy and spicy uniquely American whisky.