Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Rye Wars: Are Bulleit & Knob Creek the Coke & Pepsi of Rye?
There's been a big change in the rye market this year. As I've noted previously, some of the old reliable rye whiskeys have been hard to find. Rittenhouse 100 and Sazerac have become scarce. Wild Turkey 101 was "temporarily" discontinued to make for a lower abv 81 proof version. Into this gap have stepped two major contenders from two of the largest spirit companies. First Diageo stepped up with Bulleit, and then Beam with the new Knob Creek Rye that I reviewed last week.
Faced with the shortage, Bulleit seems to already have become the right rye at the right time. I can't find Sazerac or Rittenhouse many places, but Bulleit is everywhere, including Trader Joe's for $19.99. I've seen it on bar and retail shelves across the country. In a matter of just a year, it's managed to fill the void left by the more established ryes and become the most ubiquitous rye whiskey. Clearly seeing this success, Diageo introduced a second rye, George Dickel Rye. While it carries the name George Dickel, the whiskey is distilled in Indiana at LDI, the same distillery that makes their Bulleit Rye. Clearly, Diageo has made a very calculated bid on the rye market.
Beam's Knob Creek rye is just hitting the shelves in California, but I have no doubt that it will also see big sales. Knob Creek is a top selling brand and Beam was smart to reboot their silly (rī)¹ whiskey under a more familiar label (and at a higher proof). The lighter, barely spicy taste of the Knob Creek will appeal to people who aren't ready for the spicy kick of Bulleit. Lots of people who hear about rye and want to try it, but can't handle the spicy LDI profile will undoubtedly become fans of Knob Creek.
Diageo and Beam saw a vacuum and stepped in. The issue for Sazerac, Rittenhouse and Wild Turkey is how much of their sales will be gobbled up by these behemoths before they can increase supply. My guess is that Bulleit and Knob Creek will quickly become the Coke and Pepsi of rye whiskey, with other brands playing to more of a niche role.