Exploring the diversity of European rye whiskies

Exploring the diversity of European rye whiskies

Look out, North America: distilleries across Europe – another continent with historical ties to rye – are turning their hands to rye whisky production and using their current legislative freedom to innovate

Regional Focus | 10 Jul 2023 | Issue 192 | By Harry Brennan

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Rye is a popular staple crop across northern Europe, prized for its hardiness and ability to grow in less fertile soils. Its presence across the region has led a number of European distilleries to start producing rye whisky, exploiting their freedom from legislation governing its production (such as that found in the US) to create some unique interpretations of the style.

 

If any one word is synonymous with European rye whisky, it’s ‘Nordic’. Danish whisky producer Stauning makes rye whisky because, according to co-founder Alex Munch, the grain is “a huge part of Danish food culture”. Munch sees Stauning’s rye as a product with simple but solid flavours, representing its location: “The west coast [of Denmark] is a simple place.” This Danish rye whisky is characterised by apple, pear, and citrus zest flavours (for drinkers of Scotch and American whiskies, think more Speyside than Sazerac).

 

Finland is another Nordic trailblazer in rye whisky – if anything, Finnish cuisine is even more obsessed with rye bread than Denmark. Kyrö’s motto is the unambiguous ‘as rye as it gets’, and the distillery’s co-founder Miko Heinilä prizes Finnish rye for the particularly intense flavour of its small grains. Helsinki Distilling Company’s master blender Kai Kilpinen also celebrates Finnish rye grain, which forms part of his efforts to make “hyper-local whisky”.

East London Liquor Co.'s London Rye. Credit: Charlie McKay

Across the Gulf of Finland, Moe Distillery in Estonia makes rye whisky drawing on the national traditions of eating rye and distilling vodka. Manager and distiller Liisa Luhaste says Moe’s Tamm & Rukis whisky (translating as ‘oak and rye’) is “a very Estonian thing”. It is made with Sangaste rye, a local variety which grows well in Estonia’s cold climate. “We value Estonian produce… by making good booze from it,” Luhaste says.

 

Local traditions have also played a role in inspiring European rye whisky producers further west. Rye has long been used to make genever in the Netherlands, where Zuidam produces Millstone rye whisky. An Alpine tradition of rye bread making inspired Frédéric Revol to create rye whisky at Domaine des Hautes Glaces, in the Vercors region of France. In neighbouring Switzerland, rye is the ‘national grain’ of the Valais canton, and Fredy Lengen distils using both Valais rye and barley malt at the Sempione Distillery. In Austria, Destillerie Farthofer makes whisky from Schlägler Roggen, one of the country’s oldest rye varietials with high resistance to
disease and cold.

 

While not directly influenced by American rye whiskey, Revol’s distilling efforts in the French Alps were kickstarted by it. He wondered if French rye grown at Domaine des Hautes Glaces would produce distinct flavours. This is a project in sustainable agronomy as much as distilling, with local rye varieties now grown organically on-site. Revol places great emphasis on this grain as a foundation of his whisky’s terroir. Starting with the grain, he says, “the process comes from the land”, and every step respects or corresponds to Revol’s own “feeling in the place”. Hautes Glaces rye whisky displays a consistent set of herb, root, and spice flavours: all signatures of its Alpine terroir.

Frédéric Revol of Domaine des Hautes Glaces. Credit: Domaine des Hautes Glaces

Much of this is echoed in Patrick van Zuidam’s approach to making Millstone rye whisky in the Netherlands. Terroir is more than agricultural origin, important as that is – for Zuidam, it must have an “element of repeatability” encompassing fermentation, the distillery’s own microbiome, and distillation methods which develop signature flavours. “For me,” he explains, “that’s the essence of terroir… we’ve kept the flavours of the grain coming through in the new make.”

 

These flavours are not appealing in every application, though. In some parts of Europe, rye was distilled precisely because few people wanted to eat it. Lukas Janotka of Green Tree and van Zuidam tell a similar story about the history of rye distilling in the Czech Republic and Netherlands respectively. Wheat and barley were largely reserved for eating and brewing. Rye fared better than other cereal crops in historically poor, sandy, fast-draining soils across Moravia and Brabant.

Bottles on display at Green Tree Distillery in the Czech Republic. Credit: Green Tree

Despite this, many distilleries prize the flavour and history of rye so much that they persevere in creating whiskies made from 100 per cent malted rye. That includes Zuidam, Moe, Kyrö, and Austria’s Brennerei Kostenzer am Achensee. Malting enhances the peppery spice and sweet caramel notes of rye grain. While Stauning and Helsinki both use barley alongside rye, they still use a relatively high proportion of rye malt (65–70 per cent), and Kyrö also produces a Wood Smoke expression using rye malt dried over alder wood.

 

While some producers including Green Tree and Moe distil their rye whiskies on column stills – an approach common among North American rye distillers – most European rye whisky is made using pot stills. Zuidam runs some of continental Europe’s largest (Forsyths) stills slow and cool. Hautes Glaces and Stauning double distil their whiskies in direct-fired pot stills, combining high copper contact with the caramelisation of heavy rye wash.

The stillhouse at Moe Distillery in Estonia. Credit: H Avent

Another technique borrowed from the US, and more widely used, is the use of American oak in maturation. Helsinki, Zuidam, Green Tree, and Moe all employ combinations of new and used American oak casks to counterbalance the heavy punch of malted rye with a strong sweetness – Luhaste goes so far as to say that new American oak is the best support for Moe’s rye whisky. But the scene is not devoid of experimental ageing. Helsinki is conducting exciting experiments with Finnish oak barrels, though these are still very rare. East London Liquor Company has filled many cask types with its English rye whisky, finding particular success with shaved, toasted, and recharred (STR) casks. Stauning has tested hundreds of casks to find an ideal finish for its rye, including maple syrup. Contrary to expectations, Munch says the maple finish is not that sweet, instead introducing “an umami, liquorice flavour”.

 

Maturation practices highlight how several European distillers have turned their youth to their advantage, showcasing the rye grain itself more than slow-developing cask flavours. Hautes Glaces’ whisky ages for a short time in new French oak, which Revol stresses only “underlines” the rye’s flavour, before moving to exhausted Cognac butts for deliberately mild maturation. To focus on their spirits’ flavour, rather than their age, Stauning, Kyrö, and East London all age their ryes for four to seven years before releasing them as no-age-statement expressions.

Denmark's Stauning Distillery. Credit: Stauning Whisky

With the widespread use of malted rye and pot stills, there is some convergent evolution happening across the continent, but so far there is little effort to conform to national tastes. Zuidam and Helsinki, for example, focus on their own standards for rye whisky rather than their nations’ respective consumer preferences.

 

However, awareness of a wider picture is starting to develop. Stauning and Hautes Glaces are working with the Wine and Spirits Organisation in Denmark (VSOD) and French Whisky Federation (FWF) respectively on ideas for Danish and French whisky marks of origin. There is a strong case for regional rye varieties to inform such rules, but the precise details will likely be discussed for some time yet. 

Old Hunter's Reserve rye whisky from Green Tree. Credit: Green Tree
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