Get to Know Canadian Rye and Its Surprising Links to the U.S.

America has fallen back in love with rye whisky. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, sales of U.S.-distilled rye were marginal before 2007. However, since 2009, volumes have increased 934 percent, growing to 912.2 thousand cases in 2017. The surging demand caught nearly everyone by surprise, particularly U.S. distillers now struggling to satisfy America’s thirst. After all, it takes years of barrel aging to make a decent rye whiskey. Fortunately, a northern neighbor has come to the rescue. That’s right. Look closely at the label of some of America’s notable ryes and you’ll find that the contents originated not in Kentucky, but in Canada.

In 2010, distiller Dave Pickerell launched Vermont’s WhistlePig using 100 percent rye whisky that he purchased from Alberta Distillers Limited (ADL) in Calgary, Canada. Pickerell, the long-time master distiller at Maker’s Mark who passed away last year, is well-regarded as a whiskey visionary. Other producers saw his success, resulting in torrents of Alberta rye filling American bottles: Masterson’s, Lock Stock & Barrel, Jefferson’s, and Hochstadter’s. In many cases consumers had no idea what they were drinking; even the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board lists Lock Stock & Barrel 18 year and Hochstadter’s 16 year as “made in PA.” However, one thing was apparent about these Canadian-born ryes: they were superb, finding great acclaim among reviewers, connoisseurs, and mixologists.

The fact that Alberta Distillers excels in the production of all-rye whisky is a quirk of fate. Just prior to the Alberta oil boom in the 1940s, two Calgary philanthropists were casting about for a way to create jobs and provide local farmers with a market for their grain. Among the cereal grains being cultivated, rye was popular for its ability to withstand the harsh Alberta winters and generally unpredictable weather—drought one year, flooding the next. They settled on a distillery. Eighty years later that distillery, specifically designed and built to process rye grain, is still committed to its purpose. Today, Alberta Distillers mashes all the common whisky grains but still focuses on rye for its top whiskies.

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However, Canada did not begin with all-rye whisky. Thomas Molson, Canada’s first known whisky maker, did not distill rye at all at his Montreal distillery. Also a brewer, he exported malt whisky to the UK and sold wheat whisky in Canada. Rye was a marginal crop in early 19th-century Canada. Most distillers in the Montreal-Windsor axis where the Canadian rye whisky style developed were millers and they distilled wheat.

European immigrants, remembering rye schnapps from the old country, suggested Canada’s whisky would benefit from an infusion of rye, and they were right. Just a small amount of rye in an otherwise all-wheat mash so improved the flavor that this new style, simply called “rye,” soon displaced whisky made from wheat alone. To this day Canadians call their whisky “rye.” But in the beginning, rye was a flavoring grain, not a main ingredient, much like it is used in bourbon.

Crossing the Border

In 2010, it seemed that Pickerell had somehow discovered a secret stash of rye whisky in Canada. In truth though, these border-crossing ryes are just the latest wave in a long history of Canadian whisky flowing south to save the day. Canada’s love affair with rye goes back two centuries, and for the past century and a half, through bad times and good, Canada has stood ready to quench America’s thirst for the spice-laden spirit.

Cross-border collaborations such as Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye and Little Book “Noe Simple Task” are the latest twists on importing Canadian rye. Although they don’t say so explicitly, by blending Alberta rye with Kentucky whiskey, Jim Beam was able to stretch their U.S. stocks while also broadening their flavor palette. The approach may result in a broad spectrum of styles, even when executed by the same producer: Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye ($40) will appeal to entry-level drinkers with its simple, soft, and sweet profile; Little Book Chapter 2 “Noe Simple Task” ($100), earned a place on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 of 2018 for its decadent tropical fruit marmalade flavors underscored by earthy leather.

As Jim Beam master distiller Freddie Noe cements his position as a talented and creative blender, one thing is apparent: he is prepared to enlist quality whiskies from wherever he finds them. Canadian whisky first piqued Noe’s interest during an expedition to ADL (also owned by Beam). “I tasted some Canadian whisky that was over 30 years old on a day that must have been -30 degrees. I took a sip on that cold day, it just warned me up from the inside out and it was just bursting with this awesome fruity note. I had never tasted anything like that and I wrote in my notebook I wanted to explore Canadian whisky.”

While some distillers embrace newly created hybrids, others are looking back to heritage rye varieties that might return us to the taste of lost whiskies.

The resulting “Noe Simple Task” includes 8 year old Kentucky straight rye, 13 year old Canadian rye, and a minority component of 40 year old Canadian corn whisky. The Kentucky rye is in the minimum 51% style, while the 13 year old is more typically Canadian—largely rye, with “just a bit of corn and malted barley.”

According to Noe, ADL’s expertise in pulling vapor off the stills to target precise flavors and their use of used barrels, which is not permitted for American rye, results in a whisky unlike anything from Kentucky. “The 13 year old [Canadian] really drives the fruitiness and floral notes on the nose, while the traditional Kentucky rye has a nice bold finish and that is the contributing factor on the finish.” The international blend defies any definitions of rye whisky—other than delicious.

Rye Is Rye, Or Is It?

In the U.S. rye whiskey includes a minimum of 51% rye grain in the mashbill. By definition, among other things, Canadian rye must be a potable alcoholic distillate, or a mixture of potable alcoholic distillates, obtained from a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products, mashed, distilled, and matured in Canada. Corn, wheat, barley, triticale, and rye are counted among these cereal grains. However, there is no specific requirement that rye be included. Huh? No rye required? Well, that’s the letter of the law, as long as the whisky “possesses the aroma, taste, and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.” In practice however, most Canadian rye whisky does include rye grain.

Great Whisky Travel Destinations Await Just Over the Border in Canada

American whiskey makers generally combine different grains according to a recipe, then mash, ferment, and distill them in combination. In Canada, on the other hand, distillers generally create an assortment of single-grain whiskies, addressing each grain individually, then blend the whiskies together after they’ve aged. Each grain type is mashed, distilled, and matured separately. Thus, mature 100% rye whisky is mingled with mature corn, wheat, and barley whiskies to create the final blend. This way, distillers can optimize mashing, distilling, and maturation for each grain type. When Canada found itself well-supplied with rye whisky that was intended to be blended, it was easily repurposed as all-rye whisky for WhistlePig and others. These whiskies certainly epitomize the taste of rye, but there is more to its flavor than just the grain.

Stills Shape Rye’s Flavor

Alberta Distillers is the only major distillery in North America focused on making 100% rye whisky every day of the year. But even 100% rye whisky has many faces. From this all-rye mash, distillers at ADL may strip out most of the rye character in a column still to make mixing whisky such as Alberta Premium. By instead choosing a pot still, like those used for single malt scotch, they preserve more rye flavor, resulting in whiskies like WhistlePig, Masterson’s, and the like. Identical ingredients can produce entirely different whiskies.

Similarly, at Crown Royal, a mash of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% barley is distilled in a beer still, a short column still that produces a more flavorful and lower-alcohol spirit than a traditional column still, resulting in whisky that tastes a lot like bourbon. When distilled instead in a Coffey still, you’d swear it’s a rye. At Hiram Walker Distillery, producers of Lot No. 40 and Wiser’s blends, master distiller Dr. Don Livermore emphasizes the importance of those differences by pleading, “Don’t ask me how much rye is in it, ask me how it was distilled.”

Digging Deeper

Distillation is an industrial process, but whisky owes its existence to agriculture. Even today, Canada’s giant distilleries still buy their grain directly from the farmers who grow it. No grain so expresses its terroir as does rye. Growing conditions, soil, weather, and cultivation techniques all strongly influence the flavor exhibited in the whisky.

Smaller Canadian distillers, like Dillon’s and Stalk & Barrel, are embracing the country’s rye tradition while adding twists like the use of new oak barrels. (Photo by Jeff Harris)

But even farming is not immune to progress. In the 1950s, starch-rich corn varieties that would mature in Canada’s climate were finally developed and most distillers switched from wheat to corn, which offered better yields. A similar change is afoot with rye. As new high-yielding hybrids become more profitable to grow, they are beginning to displace the traditional varieties. Developed for milling and baking, rye grain that bakes better bread is also known to yield more whisky. Whisky accountants must delight in the reality that hybrid rye produces a lot more alcohol than the traditional varieties, but whisky makers are divided as to whether it will deliver the same spiciness that they prize in those traditional varieties.

In 2015, Livermore took the bold step of switching Hiram Walker to a new hybrid. “We find the Brasetto (a hybrid variety) to be more consistent in terms of alcohol yield and flavor,” he says. “Normal grade 2 rye has more variability. In terms of flavor profile I haven’t analytically measured enough samples to note any differences. I suppose with using the same genetic material every time, consistency should not be a surprise.” That is the glory of blending. Should Brasetto yield a slightly different spirit, Livermore can tweak the blends and barrels to attain his desired flavor. Grain flavors change slightly every year with the weather. Blending assures the flavor of the whisky does not.

The team at Crown Royal intends to stick with their traditional varieties for now. Their Northern Harvest rye (91 points) contains about 90% rye whisky. With all the effort the blending team puts into keeping the flavor profiles consistent from year to year you can understand their hesitation about switching to a new and untried variety of rye. Meanwhile, the farmers who supply the esteemed Alberta Distillers are deterred entirely from hybrid rye because their marginal lands fail to support the newer grains.

While some distillers embrace newly created hybrids, others are looking back to heritage rye varieties that might return us to the taste of lost whiskies. However, natural genetic changes over the generations (called genetic drift) mean that today’s rye is not the same as that of our forefathers’ time, even when it is the same variety. More importantly, growing conditions have changed. Centuries of cultivation, fertilization, crop rotation, and so on have changed the soil, while climate change has moved growing zones north and altered the weather. Even when using seed for the old varieties, the results are ever-changing.

Quenching America’s Thirst for Rye

Canada first became America’s liquor store during the American Civil War. At first, what was shipped south was the same whisky as supplied to Canadians. It didn’t take long though to figure out that Americans had a different palate. Soon major distilleries were making two kinds of whisky: American export whiskey (both rye and bourbon) to send south, and Canadian rye whisky for sale at home.

This continued right through Prohibition, and to some degree still remains. Canada produces a number of very successful Canadian whiskies specifically for the U.S. market. Sazerac’s Hunter Rye, intended for the U.S., is just a little meatier, spicier, and sweeter than equivalent blends sold north of the border. Crown Royal XO, another U.S. exclusive, is smoother and silkier than other offerings from Crown Royal. Pendleton Canadian whiskies, too, seem sweeter and feel smoother than Canada-bound whiskies in the same price range. So traditionally “Canadian” rye comes custom tailored for the U.S.

Expanding Flavors of Rye

If rye whisky is experiencing a renaissance, it is also going through a revolution. New varieties, new distillers, and new approaches to making rye are expanding the flavor of rye whisky. While the major producers struggle to keep up with demand for tried and true, the new distillers are leading the charge, experimenting with chocolate rye and other varieties used by craft brewers.

To the traditional rye-grain notes of cloves, baking spices, and lilacs, we must now add the orange marmalade and cured burley tobacco of Millstone Dutch rye, the lemon curd of Finland’s Kyrö, and Balcones’ dominant chocolate. In Canada, Stalk & Barrel rye delivers new earthy tones, linen, malt, and breakfast cereal. Time will tell, but there is clear potential for rye whisky to show the same flavor diversity as single malt scotch.

Will the rye boom last? Burgeoning sales suggest current demand has not yet peaked and its future seems bright. Of course, longtime Canadian distillers realize taste is cyclical. But they’ve waited patiently before for people of good taste to come to their senses, and all indications suggest they’ll be making great rye for a long time to come.

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