Rye Whisky Goes Global

Zuidam Distillery’s Patrick van Zuidam is well aware of rye’s reputation as a troublesome grain. “Basically, you end up with 10,000 liters of wallpaper paste,” says the Dutch master distiller, referring to rye’s tendency toward ‘stuck mash’ and frenetic foaming during fermentation. But van Zuidam and a rising number of global distillers refuse to let such challenges deter them from rye’s irresistibly flavorful results. “Rye has that special earthy spiciness that connects you directly to the grain and to farming,” says van Zuidam, “If the end result wasn’t so special, I wouldn’t touch rye ever again.”

As one of Europe’s leading proponents of rye, van Zuidam notes that it is not so much a new grain as an old one. “There is heritage in the grain: rye has always been a major part of distilling in the Netherlands, though mostly for genever. Rye was cheap and easy to grow, even on very poor sandy soils. It doesn’t need much to grow, apart from a bit of rain and sunshine at the right moments.”

Zuidam is not out to copy American rye whiskey; global rye producers are broadening the choice for drinkers by putting their own stamp on rye’s bold flavors. Internationally, rye is spicing things up. “Most American ryes are 51% rye, then they fill up the mashbill with other grains like corn and malted barley. We do it the hard way: we do a 100% rye mash,” explains van Zuidam. He uses a 50:50 mix of malted and unmalted rye finely milled through a hammer mill, first adding the unmalted rye to the mash then adding the malted rye.

Get Worldly With One of These International Ryes

To manage rye’s intense fermentation, van Zuidam keeps the temperature low during fermentation until most of the sugar has been used up, before slowly letting the temperature rise, allowing the lactic acid bacteria to develop, which adds further flavors in the later stages. “It ferments so quickly, that if you don’t control the temperature, half the tank could end up on the floor the next day,” he says. Consequently, fermentation at Zuidam can take as long as eight or nine days.

In pursuit of a more rounded character in the spirit, the rye is distilled in pot stills. Try their Millstone 100 Rye whisky, which is aged for 100 months and bottled at 100 proof, or William Wolf Rye to taste the difference from American rye.

Given the rye-friendly climate, Scandinavia and the UK seem well positioned to lead Europe’s rye renaissance. Denmark’s Stauning Distillery is taking a stand by floor-malting rye on-site and has bottled Stauning Young Rye, while further east on the Swedish island of Hven, Spirit of Hven distiller Henric Molin has recently produced Hvenus Rye, which contains a mashbill of 78.6% rye along with wheat, corn, and barley. David Fitt, distiller at The English Whisky Company, is leading the charge with The Norfolk Malt ‘n’ Rye, one of England’s growing number of single grain rye whiskies.

Big Aspirations

Global rye is not the exclusive domain of tiny upstarts and specialists. Diageo, the behemoth producer of Johnnie Walker, has been experimenting with the grain in their small pilot distillery in Leven, Fife. “What rye gives you is fabulous flavor, it gives you that wonderful spice, and that clove essence,” says Richard Cowley, who directs the scaled-down malt distillery installed in 2012, which was expanded last year with the addition of a miniature grain distillery modeled on Diageo’s Cameronbridge. The distillery is designed for flexibility and experimentation: copper pot still heads that mimic the style and shape of various Diageo distilleries can be interchanged.

John Stirling and his similarly rebellious brothers Iain and David produce a rye at Arbikie Distillery in Scotland.

According to Crowley, the many challenges of distilling rye are only exacerbated by Scotland’s stringent distilling regulations. “We used a balance between distilling malt and rye, as we need the enzymes from the malted barley. If you’re producing scotch rye, you need that little packet of malted barley in there.” says Cowley. “Rye is a brilliant cereal, but your mash bed becomes very sticky. It’s chockfull of beta-glucan, which is great if you’re trying to make bread, as that’s what gives your dough that elasticity, but it’s horrible if you’re a brewer or distiller, especially if you’re a scotch distiller, as you’re not allowed to use enzymes.” Distillers in most nations generally combat rye’s tendency to gum up the works with the addition of beta-glucanase, an act that is prohibited by the Scotch Whisky Regulations. “We’re not allowed to use it, so you have to use your distilling expertise and your understanding of your plant and your process to be able to make that work,” says Cowley.

Each experimental run at Leven produces only three or four casks of whisky, which are then carefully monitored by the blending team. “We keep an eye on it, and then make a call as to whether we want to make more of it,” says Jim Beveridge, master blender for Johnnie Walker. Cowley’s rye trials have already borne fruit. Some have been scaled up to larger production at Diageo-owned distilleries on Speyside and Teaninich in the Highlands. If rye whisky represents the zeitgeist of the modern palate, then the signs are that Scotland’s largest whisky producer is embracing the moment.

Diageo is joined in their pursuit of Scottish rye whisky by distilleries like InchDairnie and Islay distiller Bruichladdich, but the first taste in the U.S. comes from Arbikie Distillery.

Arbikie Highland Rye, the first Scottish rye whisky in more than 100 years is a single-estate, single-grain whisky, giving it integrity and farm-to-bottle authenticity in spades: “Our farm, our field, our soil, our stills, our skills” the carton proclaims. “There are very few [distillers] in the world that could get anywhere near to single estate and doing everything on-site, so it’s just putting our message out there,” says John Stirling, Arbikie Distillery director.

“Rye has always been grown in Scotland in the past, but it died out and now it’s coming back. The climate in Scotland works well, but when rye gets too wet, it becomes seriously hard to handle,” says Stirling. Fortunately, last summer the sun shined on Arbikie—quite literally—offering near-perfect harvest conditions.

Arbikie’s inaugural whisky was thought to be many years away, but their estate rye proved quite precocious. “We saw how quickly the rye developed and matured, so we’re thrilled to have produced a whisky at this stage. The single malt will be a pinnacle moment for us, but that’s at least twelve years away.” The initial release of 998 bottles of rye was matured in new American oak and finished for 3 to 5 months in a PX sherry cask. “Our fundamental aim was to produce a sippin’ single grain Scotch whisky, but in cities such as London and New York, there is also a demand for higher-end rye cocktails.”

I’m All Rye, Jack

When it came to crafting an Indian rye whisky, Amrut, the highly regarded whisky innovators, had specific ideas in mind. “We were clear from the beginning that there was no fun in distilling unmalted rye and we wanted to distill 100% malted rye,” says Surrinder Kumar, Amrut’s master distiller. “We wanted to stay away from the usual rye whiskeys produced in the U.S. with a mashbill containing other cereals.” Unable to locate Indian-grown rye grain suitable for the endeavor, Amrut imported European rye malted to their specifications in the UK for Amrut Rye Single Malt. “We knew that we would end up with some spicy flavors, but we did not have a clear idea of how this would work out when we were processing it for the first time.” Kumar experienced all the familiar headaches of working with rye. “It gave us extreme hassles during filtration [when the worts are run off], however, we devised our own in-house strategy to deal with the problem and successfully achieved good filtration.” Distillation went smoothly even though the alcohol yield from rye is lower than malted barley, as Kumar notes: “Essentially this increased the cost of production on two fronts: less yield combined with a much higher price for the malted rye.” Their highly regarded rye, with its flavors of praline, cinnamon, burnt orange, tropical fruits, licorice, and aniseed captures the indomitable spirit of Amrut’s willingness to explore new territories in the pursuit of flavor.

All the Rye Reasons

It’s doubtful that an Irish whiskey was ever sold as Irish rye whiskey, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Rye was once grown and harvested in County Kerry for distilling and there are historical records of unmalted rye, oats, and other grains being used to make Irish whiskey.

Alex Chasko relishes the challenges of distilling with rye grain at Teeling Whiskey. (Photo by Patrick Bloger)

While there is no formal definition for Irish rye whiskey in the Irish whiskey industry’s standards of 2014, that has not deterred Kilbeggan Distillery from reviving the grain. Launched in October 2018 and produced solely at the historic Kilbeggan Distillery, Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye is the first to be labeled Irish rye whiskey in the modern era.

Beam Suntory now owns Kilbeggan, but it was Alex Chasko who originally produced the rye spirit in a pot still mash around seven or eight years ago during his tenure as master distiller at Cooley Distillery. A native of Portland, Oregon, it seems natural that Chasko would be drawn to rye. “Being an American making whiskey in Ireland, I was always looking at rye as ‘that other grain.’ Rye was something I was keen to conquer…well, not conquer, but try. The global trend [in whiskey] at the moment is similar to what happened in craft beer 15 to 20 years ago, where people are looking at mashbills, looking at fermentation, and looking at every step along the way. They are looking at craft producers in the U.S., like Corsair, to see what they’re doing.”

At Kilbeggan, Chasko used crystal rye—defined by a specific steeping method of malting that produces attractive sweet, rich flavors of toffee, caramel, and biscuit with dried fruits and cherry notes—sourced from Fawcett’s, a maltster in England. “What I learned at Kilbeggan was that rye has some little tricks to it,” explains Chasko. “It’s a thin, smaller grain when it comes to milling, but the biggest lesson was that using 30% malted rye didn’t have the flavor impact that I would have hoped for. I thought it was going to give us that real spiciness, and it does, but not quite to the level I had thought it would have.”

Chasko then took his expertise to Dublin and continued to pursue the production of Irish rye whiskey as master distiller at Teeling Distillery using the same crystal rye. At Teeling, Chasko upped the rye proportion: 35% crystal rye to 65% malted barley. This caused some foaming, but Chasko was still able to follow his normal single malt mashing procedure. He opted to triple distill the results (Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye was double distilled). In April 2018 the spirit was filled into 422 eclectic casks including American virgin oak, first-fill bourbon, and a variety of sherry, port, and white wine casks. “What’s interesting is that it has less of the new-make quality of a single malt or pot still, and at 6 to 7 months old, it’s got more spice than you would typically see in a single pot still.” Thanks to Chasko, Ireland has joined the league of rye whisky nations.

Seeds of Inspiration

Rye is gaining attention even in areas that are farther afield from its traditional growing regions. Both of Japan’s two major distillers have also tinkered with rye. Last year, Beam Suntory released a Hakushu Distillery Rye Type in Japan as part of their Essence of Suntory Whisky series, a 100% rye whisky distilled in a column still in 2012. Nikka has previously released Nikka Rye Base, also only available in Japan. From north of Hobart, Belgrove Distillery’s Belgrove Rye whisky is an Australian single-estate bottling from distillers who also experiment with wine-finished ryes and even a smoked rye whisky flavored by burning sheep droppings (Wholly Shit Rye). Great Southern Distilling has released an Australian rye whisky made from 60% rye and 40% pale malt called Limeburner’s Rye of the Tiger.

American rye’s elevation has caught the attention of whisky lovers and distillers alike. While rye whiskey has always—though sometimes barely—persisted in the U.S. and Canada, it was largely absent in other traditional distilling nations. The awakening of rye whisky presents both technical and legal challenges for the distiller. But a growing band of whisky makers is leading a free-spirited revolution, allowing nothing to stand between them and the pursuit of rye’s fascinating flavors.

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