“For many drinkers, bourbon can be a bit too sweet,” says Todd Leopold, distiller and co-founder at Leopold Bros. in Denver. “The American palate—at least for foodies—is moving very, very rapidly away from sweet and over into savory, bitter, and hot [as in Scoville hot]. Think of how popular bitter IPAs and aperitifs [Campari, Aperol] have become. This was unthinkable 25 years ago.” This is very good news for rye whiskey. Although it is still a small sliver of the American whiskey category, rye is finding fans among discerning drinkers who relish complex, often intense flavors, and it’s finding its niche in both cocktails and for straight sipping.
Because Kentucky and Tennessee are so closely associated with bourbon and its kissing cousin, Tennessee whiskey, rye gives far-flung distillers, like Leopold Bros., a way to sidestep those comparisons. Leopold Bros. deems their rye a Maryland-style, which they characterize as fruity, floral, and lightly oaked. They are experimenting with rye made in a three-chamber still like the ones Eastern distillers perfected more than a century ago, as well as heritage rye strains, aiming to highlight the flavor characteristics that set this grain apart.
The Flavor of Rye
“There are two compounds astute distillers look for in a rye,” says Leopold. “One is linalool, which for me smells like lavender; often it’s described as floral. This is the congener that shines in younger ryes, before the barrel congeners take over (after about 3 to 4 years) and push this delicate top note into the background.”
The second compound is ferulic acid. “What people don’t understand is the rye itself is not ‘spicy’ flavored, not even a little,” says Leopold. The right yeast will metabolize ferulic acid and convert it into 4-vinyl guaiacol, which provides spicy, pungent, clove-like notes. These flavors are the hallmarks of rye.
While rye is an exceptionally hardy cereal, in the U.S. most rye is grown as a cover crop, to be plowed under, not harvested. It serves to prevent erosion and fortify the soil between more lucrative crops of corn, wheat, or soybeans. Consequently, most rye seed available in the U.S. is of mixed varieties, fine for cover planting but difficult to harvest for grain because different strains mature at different times.
This makes rye for distilling a bit more specialized than corn, wheat, or barley malt. Brooks Grain in Jeffersonville, Indiana is a supplier of rye for American distillers. Cara King is the granddaughter of Brooks Fields, the company’s namesake.
This Is Rye Country
Rye will grow just about anywhere, but King says the best rye for whiskey comes from the north. “Rye needs long sun hours to develop plump grains,” according to King, who left her position at Brooks to start a whiskey distillery near her family’s home in Tennessee. “Most really good, plump rye is grown north of the I-80 line,” says King; in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Canada.” They also source rye from Europe.
Nevada Mease might take issue with that assertion. His Meadow Brook Farm is 30 miles south of I-80. He works a 300 year old family farm, growing rye to be milled into rye flour, or mashed for rye whiskey at Herman Mihalich’s distillery in Bristol, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, producers of Dad’s Hat rye.
“If you work with them, there is a local farmer who will be glad to grow rye for you,” says Mihalich. Dad’s Hat receives Mease’s rye in 2,000-pound bulk bags of whole ‘berries,’ which Mihalich mills at his modest distillery in a repurposed textiles factory. His mashbill is 80% Mease’s rye, 5% malted rye, and 15% of a light, biscuity barley malt (not the usual distillers’ malt), those last two supplied by Briess Malt & Ingredients Co. in Wisconsin.
Mihalich double-distills in a hybrid still; first pass on the pot only, second pass with the rectification plates engaged. By the time you read this, all of his flagship Pennsylvania straight rye will be 4 year old whiskey aged in 53-gallon barrels.
Mease and Mihalich are working on a project to resurrect a venerable rye strain grown widely in the U.S. a century ago: Rosen rye. In partnership with another suburban Philadelphia institution, Delaware Valley University (founded in 1896), they obtained a scant handful of Rosen seeds from a government seed bank. Agribusiness students and professors planted and harvested this tiny amount of seed in greenhouses and high tunnels on campus. That effort produced enough seed to plant a crop outdoors on the university’s farm. Harvested last summer, it yielded enough grain to make a batch of whiskey and plant a larger crop for next year. Mease hopes to grow Rosen rye for Dad’s Hat at Meadow Brook.
Germany is also a fertile repository for rye, as many farmers and university researchers track ferulic acid levels in their grain breeding programs. These Northern European ryes (Sweden is another popular source) are prized for their plump, flavorful berries, and low presence of chaff and other foreign material, due to meticulous cleaning.
Leopold is having Abruzzi, a heritage rye strain, grown for him in Colorado. It has about 20% more ferulic acid and about 30% more linalool than modern rye grains, according to Leopold, resulting in pronounced floral and spice flavors in the finished whiskey. This is how seriously people are taking rye whiskey now (see how heirloom rye, despite its challenges, is inspiring distillers to create boldly flavored whiskeys).
There are issues with these older varieties. Modern rye strains are hybridized to increase yield and reduce stalk height, which can soar up to eight feet in some of the heritage varieties. Tall stalks tend to ‘lodge,’ or fall over in high winds or heavy rains, making the grain difficult if not impossible to harvest. It’s all part of the challenge.
A Little or A Lot
Looking across American whiskey, rye flavor appears on a continuum. At one end is no rye, which means either 100% corn or some combination of corn and grains other than rye, such as wheat or barley malt. Wheated bourbons fall into this subset.
Next come the low-rye bourbons, at about 8% rye, a subset that includes Tennessee whiskey. Standard bourbons are about 15% rye and high-rye bourbons up the ante to 30 to 35%. Although they don’t make rye whiskey, Four Roses utilizes German-grown rye for higher-rye bourbon recipes, using 20% to 35% rye.
Beyond these generally accepted distinctions, we enter more clearly defined styles, like “rye whiskey,” legally requiring a minimum of 51% rye. Most American rye whiskeys are in the range of 60 to 70%, joined by a healthy amount of corn in the mash, for sweetness and backbone. A few producers, however, go as high as 90 to 95% rye, with the rest being barley malt, maxing out at 100% rye, often with rye malt in the mix.
In New York, a group of small craft distillers has trademarked a distinctive local style called Empire rye, inspired by a law that requires them to use at least 75% New York-grown raw materials like fruit and grain.
Colin Spoelman is co-founder and head distiller at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn. “Empire rye is a project that [former blender] Nicole Austin started almost three years ago with some of the other New York distillers at the ACSA [American Craft Spirits Association] conference in Denver,” explains Spoelman.
“Some of our distilleries had won some nice medals at the show in the whiskey category and after I suppose a fair amount of drinking (I was not there), it was proposed that we all might make rye according to the same general recipe, with New York-grown rye grain,” explains Spoelman. “In so doing, we would create a regional designation.”
The rules were debated with the original group, which included Coppersea Distilling, New York Distilling Co., Tuthilltown Spirits, and a few others. They settled on a high-rye recipe (75% or more), all New York-grown rye, malted or unmalted, distilled and aged according to the straight rye regulations, which require at least 2 years in new charred barrels. They also require a low barrel-entry proof of 115 and that barrels come from the same distilling season, a stipulation borrowed from bottled in bond.
If Empire rye represents the latest attempt at defining rye, Monongahela rye is the earliest variety, going back to before the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791. In Herman Melville’s American classic, Moby Dick (1851), whale blood is compared to whiskey and several types are named, including “Old Monongahela.” We don’t know much about what “Old Monongahela” meant in Melville’s day, except it was aged rye whiskey made in western Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River valley, and red enough to be compared to whale blood.
Sam Komlenic, whiskey historian and copy editor for Whisky Advocate who has conducted extensive research on Old Monongahela, says it was usually around 80% rye, 20% barley malt. No corn, though ‘all-rye’ varieties utilized rye malt.
Then there is the recipe followed at George Washington’s restored Mount Vernon Distillery. Based on the distillery’s ledgers from 1798 and 1799, his mashbill was 60% rye, 35% corn, and 5% barley malt.
Dark Days of Rye
Despite this rich history, rye fell on hard times by the late 1980s, as only four American distilleries were regularly making rye whiskey, all in Kentucky.
Among the brands that persevered were long-lived names like Heaven Hill’s Rittenhouse and Pikesville, monikers that betray their Pennsylvania and Maryland roots respectively. Ironically, former Heaven Hill master distiller Denny Potter describes them as ‘Kentucky rye,’ characterized by a ‘barely legal’ 51% rye content, and consequently about 35% corn. They aim to not stray too far from bourbon in flavor. But the difference is apparent with, “more spice, more kick to it, more attitude,” compared to bourbon, says Potter. “You’re not going to mask it in a cocktail.” In fact, cocktails can be credited with putting rye back on the map, as bartenders sought to add authenticity to their Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds, drinks that were defined by their generous rye kick before the rise of bourbon.
Heaven Hill makes a lot more rye whiskey today. They used to make rye one or two days each season, now it is one or two days a month, perhaps 1,300 barrels in a day. While rye production is still tiny compared to bourbon, it’s growing at a more rapid rate.
Kentucky distillers Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, and the biggest rye maker of them all, then and now, Jim Beam, also carried the torch for rye during its darkest days. “Most of our rye sold in Wisconsin,” recalls Fred Noe, Beam’s master distiller and son of Booker Noe, of rye’s waning days. The Beam family always made rye alongside its famous bourbon. “Dad liked to put corn in it to balance out the flavor, but I don’t know whose recipe it was originally.” Noe won’t say exactly what the mashbill is, but it is more than 60% rye. The limited-edition Booker’s rye was a bit higher. “Freddie wants to do something like the Booker’s rye,” says Noe referring to his son, who recently earned the title of master distiller. Freddie likes to try new things. “Freddie and them made an all-Kentucky rye. It did okay. It was hard to find enough good grain. Down here we don’t get the rain when you need it to make the rye plump up.”
Making rye whiskey poses other challenges for the distiller. “We run a little bit less in volume” to control foaming, says Noe. “We run a 450-bushel mash for bourbon, but just 350 bushels for rye, so we leave enough freeboard [head space in the fermenter]. Even though we make a lot of rye whiskey, we still sometimes go over.” Aggressive agitation in the mash tubs is necessary to prevent ‘rye balls,’ spheres of undissolved rye grain. “It will stay dry inside of that ball, which affects acidity levels. You can’t figure out what it is causing the problem.”
Harlen Wheatley, master distiller at Buffalo Trace, also finds rye difficult. “It is harder to convert to sugar than corn and more difficult to handle the spent grain,” he says. “It is very difficult to fortify it with nutrients and maintain protein levels in the spent grain.”
The Seagram company always made rye whiskey as a component for its blends, such as Seagram’s 7 Crown. One of those ryes is still being made at the former Seagram Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, now owned by MGP Ingredients. Their 95% rye has become legendary. Many people who have recently come to appreciate rye identify this whiskey as typical of American rye due to its pervasiveness and many guises. MGP rye whiskey often comes cloaked in bottles of craft whiskeys, as well as Diageo’s Bulleit rye and George Dickel rye.
Rye manifests itself in many ways throughout American whiskey, a grain that is the Old World counterpart to America’s native corn, often playing the yin to corn’s yang in both bourbon and rye whiskeys. Having been around since colonial times, rye may be old, but that doesn’t mean it can’t learn a few new tricks.