It was the liquor loved by thirsty cowboys and was immortalised by the Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. But Prohibition nearly killed off the taste of the frontier when America turned to the milder demands of bourbon.
Now, rye is back, and has punched Scotch straight through the saloon bar doors to be named the world's top-rated whiskey. The 2010 edition of the Whisky Bible, Britain's biggest selling whisky book, has named 18-year-old Sazerac Rye from Kentucky as the finest dram available to mankind.
The amber chestnut spirit, celebrated for its oak, leather and molasses overtones with hints of mint and eucalyptus, beat off competition from 3,850 whiskies including second-placed Ardbeg Supernova from the Hebridean island of Islay, arguably the smokiest dram ever made, and which has dominated the awards for the past three years.
The book's author, Jim Murray, described the rye, distilled at the historic Buffalo Trace distillery – famed as the first company to send liquor down the Mississippi River – as "reaching previously unknown heights". "In beating all other world-whiskey types, Sazerac 18 has set the bar for rye whiskey and it will be fascinating in forthcoming years to see what is bottled to at least match it," he said
Harlen Wheatley, the master distiller at Buffalo Trace, said he was delighted with the accolade. "It is a true honour to have our products singled out by Jim. He truly understands what makes a fine whiskey," he said.
While the US distillery took the coveted first place with a joint record score of 97.5, third place went to Amrut Fusion from Bangalore with 97 out of 100. The newcomer was praised by Mr Murray for its "mystical complexity", in a move which recognises the world's second most populous nation as a major whisky manufacturer. In his tasting notes, he advises would-be drinkers: "It is one of those which command a big mouthful, a chair with a headrest ... and silence."
The arrival of the Indian-made Amrut, which at £33.99 costs less than half the price of the £89 rye or the £94.99 leading Scotch, signals a growing challenge to centuries-old Caledonian dominance of the international whisky market. The Japanese malt Yoichi was named best in the world last year by Whisky Magazine and makers there have been piling up gongs in both single-malt and best-blended categories once again this year.
Mr Murray said that some sections of the Scotch whisky industry needed to raise their game. "There is still a sneering attitude in some quarters that, if it is not made in Scotland, then somehow it is not proper whisky," he said. "I don't think the Scots have a lot to be complacent about at the moment in terms of whisky. While the best is still exceptional, there is a lot of Scotch whisky out there which is really not good at all."
He added: "Hopefully the arrival of Indian whisky will act as a wake-up call for the Scotch whisky industry. If these guys in Bangalore can produce exceptional, world-class whisky, why can't Scottish distillers who have been around for 100 years or more? Very often, the answer is that distilleries don't take a huge amount of bother in choosing the casks they use, and it has become a numbers game for them."
Rob Allanson, the editor of Whisky Magazine, agreed. He said that the rising cost of materials could be impacting on home-grown quality. "There are some truly phenomenal non-Scottish whiskies out there," he said. "Some whiskies, especially those being produced in oak casks in Japan, are incredible and completely beyond anything that is produced in Scotland."
A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association defended standards. "Landmark regulations to protect and promote Scotch whisky show Scottish distillers are continuing to maintain the highest standards in every aspect of the production process," he said.
Rye whiskey is made from a mash that is 51 per cent rye – compared to the sweeter, more full-bodied bourbon which is produced from corn. Scotch whiskies contain malted barley, while the high-strength Amrut Fusion takes its name from the deployment of both Indian-grown and peated Scottish barley.
World whisky league: Tasting notes
*Sazerac Rye 18 Years Old (Fall 08): World Whisky of the Year Amber chestnut in colour, boasting notes of oak leather and molasses. It is described as "enormous in every respect" with a "chewy texture" while its finish is preceded by notes of mint, eucalyptus and lingering pepper. £89
*Ardbeg Supernova, From the distillery on the southern tip of Islay, it is described as "heavily peated, with a turfy smoke and seaspray character". The dram has been an international phenomenon with customers limited to one bottle each. £94.99
*Amrut Fusion, Distilled 3,000ft above sea level in Bangalore, India, this high-strength liquor blends Indian-grown with peated Scottish barley. It combines oak, smoke, dark fruit, mocha and high-cocoa dark chocolate. £33.99