Heirloom Grains Are Bringing Rye Whiskey Back to Its Roots

Danko, Abruzzi, and Rosen may sound like a law firm, or a not so hip 70s rock band. But you’ll hear the names being bandied about at small distilleries around the U.S. They are heirloom varietals of rye—grains that had all but disappeared from American farming until about a decade ago, when craft distillers began seeking out local farmers to grow them. Their aim is to restore long-vanished rye whiskey styles, and these forgotten rye strains may be their key to success. It hasn’t been an easy endeavor, but distillers believe the resulting differences make it all worthwhile.

Farmers mainly use rye as a cover crop—planting it in the fall and plowing it under in the spring or summer, for the purpose of keeping the soil in place during winter. Larger distilleries look abroad for their rye grain—to Canada, Germany, or Sweden. Herman Mihalich, co-founder and distiller of Dad’s Hat Rye in Bristol, Pennsylvania, was one of the early voices advocating for a return to native strains. “At a meeting one time, I’d made a statement that I’m surprised that American distillers in Kentucky are not using American rye,” Mihalich recalls. “They were saying American rye is not good enough. But I don’t think that’s correct.”

Three men sit by whiskey barrels and a still

Herman Mihalich and John Cooper of Dad’s Hat with farming partner Nevada Mease. (Photo by Jason Varney)

Revisiting Rye’s History

Mihalich launched Dad’s Hat in 2011, using locally sourced heirloom rye from several different farms before deciding to work exclusively with farmer Nevada Mease at Meadowbrook Farm in Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles north of Dad’s Hat. “Nevada is taking care to make a top-quality product,” Mihalich says. “That land has been part of his family’s history since 1716.” Mihalich and Mease are working together to create a new whiskey using Rosen rye—a historical varietal from Pennsylvania’s rye-making heyday of the early 20th century. At that time it was called “Old Monongahela rye” after the river that flowed past many western Pennsylvania distilleries. Another Rosen rye whiskey is being made by Pennsylvania distiller Stoll & Wolfe in Lititz, which released its first Rosen expression last year.

Along with Pennsylvania, Maryland was the other focal point for rye whiskey before Prohibition, but the last of the state’s pre-Prohibition rye distilleries, Baltimore-based Standard Distillers Products, which owned Pikesville rye, closed its doors in 1972. While Baltimore’s Sagamore Spirit is doing important work in restoring Maryland’s name as a place for rye whiskey, it does not focus specifically on the heirloom rye phenomenon, or at least it hasn’t yet. One smaller distiller who does is McClintock Distilling Co. in Frederick County, which has returned to grains used more than a century ago. Braeden Bumpers, McClintock’s co-founder and distiller, worked with the South Mountain Heritage Society in nearby Burkittsville to determine that Danko rye, a native historical varietal which produced the fruit-forward flavor characteristic of Maryland ryes, was the strain once used. McClintock now works with four local farms to source certified organic Danko rye.

Many of the farmers in Frederick County work with the Maryland-based poultry giant Perdue, which uses GMO grains and chemical pesticides. Getting farmers to transition to organic heirloom grains was a challenge, Bumpers says. “We are very upfront with everybody—that growing organic is a lot more work, and that you’re not going to get yields as good as growing for Perdue, but overall, you’ll make more money if you’re willing to do the work,” he says. “We’ve found people who are able to keep the family farm, which is great.”

Taking It Up a Notch

After researching rye types used before 1920, Todd Leopold of Denver, Colorado-based Leopold Bros., found a local farmer who could supply Abruzzi—another varietal once widely grown in Maryland. Leopold then took it up a notch by working with Louisville-based distilling equipment manufacturer Vendome Copper and Brass Works to build a three chamber still—a long-forgotten model that was used for rye whiskey distilling in Maryland and Pennsylvania a century ago. The fruit of Leopold’s remarkable effort is the Leopold Bros. Three Chamber rye, which was released last year to much conversation in the whisky world. The project was a bold attempt to recreate an obsolete method used for pre-Prohibition rye, including the choice of rye strain. “I didn’t want to make the mistake of trying to apply modern ingredients and expect the still to behave the same way,” says Leopold. Specifically, Abruzzi has a much lower starch content than modern rye, so its use requires adding greater quantities of rye per gallon of liquid. “That means it will be more flavorful,” Leopold adds.

Two men stand in front of a three chamber still

Scott and Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros. rocked the rye world with last year’s release of Three Chamber rye. (Photo by Jeff Nelson)

Aged 4 years and bottled in bond, Three Chamber rye is now available on its own or in a blend with column-distilled rye made at Cascade Hollow (formerly George Dickel) in Tennessee. So pleased was Leopold with the results that he now uses Abruzzi in all Leopold Bros. spirits containing rye.

In New York, where distillers have created the Empire Rye classification for locally made ryes, the issue of specific rye strains takes a back seat to a focus on local provenance. An Empire Rye whiskey thus can earn its designation simply by being made with 75% New York grown rye of any kind, distilled to no higher than 160 proof, going into the barrel at 115 proof or lower, and aging at least two years in new charred American oak. (The entire process, from mashing through aging, must take place at a single New York distillery.) Allen Katz, distiller at New York Distilling Co. and co-founder of the Empire Rye Whiskey Association, says the rules give distillers plenty of scope for expression. “It’s a great opportunity to flex creative muscles on developing unique and individualistic Empire Ryes,” he says. New York now has 10 officially sanctioned distilleries making Empire Rye, with nearly 20 others committed to joining as soon as they can meet the standards.

Farmers Turned Distillers

Some noteworthy craft distilleries have been launched by rye farmers themselves. In Minnesota’s Red River Valley, on a farm tilled by the Swanson family for more than a century, Minnesota rye is grown and distilled into whiskey at the aptly named Far North Distillery. For its Roknar 100% rye, the Swansons hired a nearby maltster to do some of the malting, and a local cooperage made the barrels from Minnesota oak. It’s another tiny release most of us will never see, but we can enjoy the idea and hope for more of the same.

Nick Nagele, a fifth-generation farmer in Illinois, co-founded Whiskey Acres Distillery in 2013 with father-and-son team Jim and Jamie Walter, whose family has owned their farm in DeKalb, Illinois since the 1930s. They primarily wanted to showcase Whiskey Acres as “The Napa Valley of corn for distilling,” Nagele says, but also wanted to make rye, and they grow all the rye they distill. Since rye is grown as a cover crop in Illinois, Nagele looked northward to Minnesota for his grain type, where he and Mike Swanson of Far North Distillery found a rye varietal called AC Hazlet. It worked, both economically and agronomically. Whiskey Acres sells its rye whiskey as a bottled in bond and a younger straight expression.

Three men standing by racked whiskey barrels

Farmer Nick Nagele (center) partnered with father and son Jim (right) and Jamie Walker (left) to found Whiskey Acres Distilling in DeKalb, Illinois.

Further west, Colby Frey, co-founder and distiller at Frey Ranch in western Nevada, uses the Prima rye varietal, which is typically found in Canada. “That’s what we’d always grown, for as long as I can remember,” Frey says. “We tried all kinds of other varieties, and none of them were as good or as flavorful.” The result is a whiskey distinct from both Canadian and Kentucky expressions, which Whisky Advocate called “outstanding,” rating it 93 points.

Perhaps the most pivotal player in the rye boom has been WhistlePig. The distillery is located on a farm in Shoreham, Vermont, but its whiskey has been distilled and partially aged in Canada. The goal from the outset was to make a grain-to-bottle whiskey, and in 2017 it released Farmstock, containing 20% homegrown rye (the latest iteration is 52% from the farm). In 2021, WhistlePig went a step further with the debut of Beyond Bonded rye, the first WhistlePig expression to be distilled 100% from Remington rye that was grown entirely at its farm. Both Farmstock and Beyond Bonded are very different from the other WhistlePig whiskeys, but distiller Emily Harrison sees that as a good thing. “My favorite part of rye is the light, floral side that you just don’t see that often,” she says. “[Farmstock and Beyond Bonded] hit another side of rye that you don’t get in our other products—or in a lot of other ryes on the market. It can be light and approachable instead of bold and spicy.”

Farming your own rye has its share of drawbacks, Harrison says, “If there’s a problem that you can have with farming, we’ve had it. We have heavy clay in our soil that does not grow rye very well, and if you’re turning the fields over, it’ll actually bake in the fields, and obviously you can’t grow rye on chunks of pottery.” Lodging—the term for when the tall rye stalks are knocked over by storms shortly before harvest time—is a common issue. Significant rain before the harvest can also cause a host of problems, whether it’s lodging, or fungi and toxins growing on the berries, or even germination in the field. All can severely reduce yields.

Small-farm economics can also affect small distilleries, as New York-based Hudson Whiskey distiller Brendan O’Rourke explains. Sometimes small farmers can’t get their crop off the field if, for example, there is an equipment breakdown. The weather can also be a factor, impacting crop production—and ultimately whiskey production as well.

But the farmers and distillers who’ve taken the homegrown route say the drawbacks are worth all the trouble. Local grains help make a distinctive whiskey—taste Frey Ranch’s bottled in bond rye next to, say, New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime rye and WhistlePig’s Beyond Bonded, and you’ll get three very different flavor profiles. And going local is an important way to support farmers who otherwise might vanish from the scene. Adds O’Rourke: “If I can support the farmers in my area, I can ensure that the farmland stays there, and that these historic family farms won’t be turned into condo developments. That’s a big driver.”

Rye whiskies made with locally grown rye

Frey Ranch Bottled in Bond
93 points, 50%, $60
Rye type: Prima
Rye source: Frey Ranch’s own farm in Fallon, Nv.
Mashbill: 100% rye

Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Cask Strength
92 points, 60%, $90
Rye type: Ryman, Haslett, and Brasetto
Rye source: Leesburg, Va. and Lancaster, Pa.
Mashbill: 100% rye

Hudson Do The Rye Thing New York Straight bottle.Hudson Do The Rye Thing
90 points, 46%, $40
Rye type: Not specified winter rye
Rye source: Hudson Valley, N.Y.
Mashbill: 95% rye, 5% malted barley

Dad’s Hat
88 points, 47.5%, $55
Rye type: Danko and Prima
Rye source: Meadowbrook Farms, Riegelsville, Pa.
Mashbill: 80% rye, 5% malted rye, 15% malted barley

Leopold Bros. Three Chamber Bottled in Bond
88 points, 50%, $250
Rye type: Abruzzi
Rye source: A farm in Longmont, Colo.
Mashbill: 80% Abruzzi rye, 20% own malted barley

Whiskey Acres
87 points, 43.5%, $45
Rye type: AC Hazlet
Rye source: Whiskey Acres’ own farm in DeKalb, Ill.
Mashbill: 75% rye, 25% corn

Coppersea Bottled in Bond Bonticou Crag
86 points, 50%, $120
Rye type: Danko
Rye source: Hudson Valley, N.Y.
Mashbill: 100% rye, malted at Coppersea

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