New World rye strikes a chord

20 September, 2023

The American whiskey style has seen a boost in its fortunes in the US, and now it’s catching the eye of distillers across the globe.

Traces of rye whiskey in the US date back as far as the 18th century when Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in Pennsylvania. Their trusted barley grains didn’t cope in the new environment so rye became the popular alternative. One report from the Pennington Distilling Co in Nashville, Tennessee, says that in 1810 Kentucky produced 2.2 million gallons of bourbon while the state of Pennsylvania produced 6.5 million gallons of rye. Rye is also credited with being the original basis for the Manhattan and Old Fashioned, but a combination of Prohibition and government subsidies making corn more financially accessible led to a spiral of decline for the style. Yet for the past decade rye in the US has made a significant comeback and for context, nine out of 10 on the bestselling American whiskies listed in Drinks International Annual Brands Report make a rye. However, while the category is thriving in the US, the ripple effects have seen the emergence of New World rye whisky from Denmark to Tasmania and now the UK.

In a recent article on the growth of American rye for Drinks International, Clinton Cawood spoke to Matt Krusemark, vice president of distilling solutions sales for the leading producer of rye whiskey in the US, MGP Ingredients. “Demand for US rye whiskey has risen over the past 15 years, along with the growth of cocktail culture and a spirit of innovation at both craft and large distillers,” says Krusemark. “Today, distillers are pushing the boundaries of traditional ryes with the use of local or heritage grains, cask finishes, age statements and other characteristics that evoke quality.”

A similar line of innovation is taking place in the UK and there’s a movement from companies of all shapes and sizes towards making rye whiskies. Remy Cointreau’s Bruichladdich launched The Regeneration Project earlier this year – a single grain Scotch from Islay made of 55% rye from the island and 45% island-grown malted barely. As well as being on-trend, the use of local grain is another driving factor behind the launch.

Douglas Taylor, chief executive at Bruichladdich Distillery, says: “As a whisky distillery we are accountable for our impact from the ground up, and that starts with understanding where our essential raw ingredients come from, and how they are grown.

“We learned that rye is a hugely beneficial rotational crop which not only reduces the need for artificial input but improves soil health and structure – which matters.

“But with no market for Scottish-grown rye, it begs the question – why would a farmer grow it? Well, we could buy it – and create a delicious whisky. All while supporting our vital farming partners, helping the environment and promoting soil health. Pursuing flavour while reducing our impact, The Regeneration Project is the start of something much bigger than whisky.”

Hopping across the Irish Sea, at the beginning of the year Pernod Ricard’s Powers whiskey launched a 100% rye expression which is aged in seasoned American oak casks, and the extreme lengths the brand has gone to suggests just how valuable the market is becoming.

Eric Ryan, Powers’ distiller, says: “From our commitment to farming a difficult crop, to reduced brewhouse throughput, to longer fermentation times, and considering the exceptional cask profile; if it was only about efficiency, we would never have used rye. But it proved a worthy endeavour.”

English style

While traditional Scotch and Irish producers are moving into the rye sector, there are distilleries in England which have based their entire whisky operation around the peppery grain.

The Oxford Artisan Distillery was founded in 2016 and has been using rye to make not only whisky, but vodka and gin, and master distiller Chico Rosa says: “For decades we got used to drinking malted barley Scotch, traditional Irish whiskey and corn-based bourbon. So even though it’s an old product, rye whisky feels new and exciting, particularly outside the US.

“We’re selling most of our whisky in the UK, but we send it all over Europe from Germany to Norway and we would like to enter the US in force. The US is traditionally a great market for rye but we’re different to the straight rye style, we fit more with the New World category. However, what separates us from the majority of New World rye whiskies is that they largely use malted rye, so I’d say we sit somewhere between the two styles.”

One style which Rosa is working on is the use of old wine casks. Being of Portuguese descent and a former winemaker, it’s only natural that Rosa is drawn towards the use of port casks and ex-Madeira barrels, which he had only just taken delivery off before talking to Drinks International.

“I think rye whisky benefits a lot from wine cask maturation. Particularly refill casks for longer maturation. We use a wide range of wine casks from vibrant red vintage ports to light amontillado sherry butts. I also think sauternes casks are my favourite to work with because they add complexity and allow the rye to shine, while rounding it off slightly.

“With all the shortage of new oak we’re trying to order as much virgin oak as possible. About 30% of our maturation programme is new oak and we vary between a medium toast and a heavy char just to take the edge off some of those harsh rye notes, which can be super spicy.

“We launched our first rye whisky in 2021 and since then we’ve been making our batches using different grain ratios, different stills and different maturation formulae to try to develop our whisky and its style. Rye has the ability to cross-pollinate in the fields so the genetic diversity keeps evolving and changing, meaning we harvest different tasting rye year on year. That’s why we’ve launched our whisky in batches, because we’re still learning what grains we’re dealing with, but soon we’ll be able to launch a signature rye-based whisky after five years of experimentation. From there we’ll start playing around with maize, barley, wheat and corn.”

Another prominent rye producer in England is the East London Liquor Company, which has been making its rye since late 2020 and co-founder Alex Wolpert has also enjoyed the flavour development process.

“The New World whisky movement is very exciting. There are brands all over the world making great rye whiskies and I think consumers are looking for new and interesting products as long as they’re well made,” says Wolpert.

“It’s of course important for our whisky to have a house style, but the nuances year on year are interesting and our customers are still satisfied because they get a whisky profile which they’re expecting, but with slight differences. Our malted barley adds a buttery texture which 100% rye whiskies don’t have and it combats the intense spice from the rye grain.

“From our perspective whisky should be flavour-led. We’re able to do some exciting stuff because we’re not restricted by regulation in England. Of course, many of the rules put in place in Scotland and the US are there to protect standards and guarantee quality, and they’re important to take note of particularly because consumers can relate with them.

“But this why transparency is very important. Consumers nowadays want to know what they’re drinking and therefore on our bottles you can see every detail of our whisky. Also, given the fact our whisky has changed slightly over the years, people are interested to see what’s different.”

In a way rye whisk(e)y is going full circle. From the Scottish and Irish settlers in the US adopting the grain some 300 years ago, to modern producers making British rye in the 21st century. New World rye whisky is an exciting sub-category because, while the US continues to lead the resurgence, consumers will be open to trying the New World style and given the lack of regulations and subsequent freedom to experiment, there’s great optimism all round. That’s probably why Diageo’s investment company, Distil Ventures, has shares in several of the frontrunners, including The Oxford Artisan Distillery and Stauning in Denmark.

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