Rye whiskey doesn’t often get as much attention as other whiskey subcategories like bourbon or Scotch. Yet rye is a fast-growing sector that’s seen steadily rising sales for more than a decade. Led by a set of core brands, many of which sell at premium prices, rye can be a key sales driver for retailers — especially in Q4, which is the subcategory’s strongest quarter.

Steady Growth and Interest in Rye Whiskey

The conversation around rye is much different than it was in the mid-2000s. While bourbon has become far and away the largest subcategory of American whiskey, rye has jumped in both sales volume and revenue since 2009.

Data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) notes that while the volume of domestic rye whiskey produced was negligible in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of cases has gone up considerably year-over-year since 2009. Volume has gone from 88,000 nine-liter cases in 2009 to 1.4 million cases in 2020 — an increase of about 1,500 percent over 11 years. Case volume of rye whiskey grew about 16 percent from 2019 to 2020 alone.

It’s not just volume. The same DISCUS data set also shows that suppliers went from generating $15 million in revenue from rye whiskey sales in 2009, to $275 million in 2020.

In 2021, Drizly’s average unit price of rye whiskey is $44.50. That’s up seven percent from 2020 and 14 percent from 2019. There’s a broader trend toward premiumization happening in whiskey, tequila, and other spirits, but it’s particularly pronounced in the rye whiskey subcategory: The average price of rye is 22 percent higher than the average whiskey price. 

There are a number of reasons rye could be seeing higher average price points than a whiskey subcategory like bourbon. 

“One potential factor is the quality or age statements of the top-selling products within the rye category,” Paquette says. “I also think the growth of gifting in this category has played a role given the significantly higher amount gift-givers are willing to splurge on rye versus standard orders.”

Still, rye’s overall share of sales remains modest. Rye whiskey accounted for a 6.6 percent share of the whiskey category on Drizly in 2020, up from six percent in 2019. In 2021 to date, rye whiskey has made up six percent of the whiskey share with its historically strongest quarter coming up. 

Stable Brands and Premium Growth

Despite the subcategory’s rapid growth, there aren’t any standouts for fast-growing new rye brands this year on Drizly. “This may suggest that the established top-sellers remain go-tos for consumers, and there is not as much interest in seeking new products as we see in other categories,” Paquette says. The top-selling rye whiskeys have remained relatively stable from year to year, as well.

Drizly’s Top-Selling Rye Whiskeys, 2021 to Date

  1. Bulleit Rye
  2. WhistlePig Rye 10 Year
  3. Michter’s US-1 Kentucky Straight Rye
  4. WhistlePig Old World Rye Aged 12 Years
  5. Rittenhouse Rye
  6. High West Double Rye Whiskey
  7. Redemption Straight Rye Whiskey
  8. Angel’s Envy Rum Cask Rye
  9. Basil Hayden Dark Rye Whiskey
  10. Knob Creek Rye Whiskey

Rye isn’t immune to wider whiskey trends when it comes to everyday bottles, and it can help to stock ryes that have a flavor profile similar to bourbon’s corn sweetness that people are familiar with. 

“People like sweet,” says Gene Charness, president of Warehouse Liquors, which has one of the largest whiskey selections in Chicago. “They tolerate rye when there’s a heavy dose of corn in front.”

When it comes to many of the premium bottles that are top sellers on Drizly, however, distinct qualities like age statements and special barrel finishes sell.  

“Rye whiskey by its nature is generally more complex and spicy than bourbon,” says Meghan Ireland, WhistlePig’s quality assurance supervisor. “Age declarations in rye therefore can be viewed not only as a mark of premium product but also that it will be generally more balanced and nuanced than their younger counterparts.”

However, with most ryes falling into the non-age-statement category, Ireland believes consumers will be “looking for more premium expressions.” WhistlePig, for example, plans to continue to release older ryes, as well as different ryes with different mashbills, terroir, and barrel finishes.

Market-Specific Rye Trends

Location can play a role in rye whiskey sales through Drizly. Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, and Seattle all over-index on rye sales relative to overall sales on Drizly, Paquette says. 

When it comes to the states that produce the rye being purchased on Drizly, a few leaders stand out. Kentucky has the highest rye whiskey share by state production, though its dominance has decreased slightly from 60 percent in 2020 to 56 percent in 2021. Vermont, led by WhistlePig, increased its share from 12 percent in 2020 to 18 percent in 2021. Utah, home of High West, increased from seven percent to nine percent in 2021.

Indiana (four percent rye whiskey share in 2021) follows those three states, with Iowa, New York, Maryland, and Tennessee each holding a two percent share in 2021 to date.

Rye Poised for a Strong Q4 With Gift Orders

The year-to-date 2021 numbers don’t reflect the rye subcategory’s strongest quarter. 

In 2021 to date, 16 percent of the rye whiskey share has come from gift orders, compared to the 10 percent share on the average Drizly order. And when people gift rye, they give generously. 

“The average unit price of rye gift orders in 2021 to date is $72 — 47 percent higher than the overall average unit price,” Paquette says. Most of the rye whiskey SKUs that are primarily gifted also demand a higher price due to an age statement or cask finish.

Drizly’s Most-Gifted Rye SKUs, 2021 to Date

  • WhistlePig Old World Rye Aged 12 Years
  • WhistlePig Rye 10 Year
  • WhistlePig 15 Year Rye
  • Angel’s Envy Rum Cask Rye
  • Bulleit Rye

Paquette suggests retailers take advantage of rye’s gift-giving potential by stocking the top-selling gift SKUs early in preparation for the holiday surge. This is especially important for SKUs that are allocated or difficult to obtain.

“We expect rye to see share gains in Q4 this year, as it typically does each year,” Paquette says, “but potentially even more so with the rising popularity of the subcategory in gift orders, which may lead to taking share from other whiskey subcategories.”