The return of Scottish rye whiskies

The return of Scottish rye whiskies

Whiskies made with rye were a feature of the Scottish distilling landscape until the fairly recent past – now, a clutch of distilleries is focused on reviving the ‘Scotch rye’ style

Production | 24 Jul 2023 | Issue 192 | By Gavin Smith

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The first mould-breaking ‘Scotch rye’ of modern times was produced by Arbikie Distillery in Angus, and launched in 2018. Since its arrival, whisky fans have waited impatiently for another Scotch rye whisky to come along. Now, five years later, two have come along at once, courtesy of Bruichladdich and InchDairnie.

 

Not that they are allowed to be called ‘Scotch rye whisky’. To comply with current industry regulations, they belong to the category of ‘single grain Scotch whisky’ and must primarily be labelled accordingly.

 

‘Scotch rye’ was produced until the early 20th century. In his seminal text The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887), Alfred Barnard singles out the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL)-owned Port Dundas distillery in Glasgow for its use of large quantities of rye during the 1880s, some malted and some unmalted. Evidence presented during the 1908–09 Royal Commission into the definition of ‘Scotch whisky’ shows that rye was also widely used in the patent stills of other DCL distilleries at that time.

 

From an agricultural point of view, rye was attractive to many Scottish farmers as it grew well on relatively poor farm land, where distilling-quality malted barley would not thrive. Rye whisky fell out of favour in the UK during the 20th century, much as it did in the USA, but the cocktail revival of recent decades has seen a parallel rise in popularity of rye whiskey in North America, and finally Scotland is also experiencing a resurgence of the genre.

 

Arbikie is a family-owned farming and distilling enterprise, and the three Stirling brothers who oversee operations and grow all distilling materials on-site are passionate about sustainability and employing the best agricultural practices.

 

According to Arbikie co-founder John Stirling, “Rye is a great crop and helps us create a more sustainable way of farming. The straw is fantastic for the soil, much better than barley or wheat. Because we’re making it as a Scotch, it tastes very different from US or Canadian rye.”

 

The mash bill of Arbikie Highland Rye 1794 comprises rye, barley, and wheat. Releases to date have been aged in new charred American oak casks, with one batch finished in Armagnac casks and another in Jamaican rum casks.

The Arbikie Distillery in Angus. Credit: Arbikie

Over on Islay, Bruichladdich launched its first rye whisky earlier this year as part of its Projects series of bottlings. The Regeneration Project, Islay’s first ‘single grain Scotch whisky’, was matured for six years in a mix of first-fill bourbon casks and first-fill American virgin oak casks before bottling.

 

The rye was grown on Coull Farm near Bruichladdich by farming partner Andrew Jones, who echoes John Stirling’s comments about the benefits of cultivating rye. “When it comes to crop rotation, it didn’t get any weedkiller and it didn’t get any fungicide – it seems to suppress all the problems you tend to get with growing barley,” Jones notes.

 

“Rye is deeper rooted as well, so it seems to be aiding drainage. We’ve also noticed that the barley following straight after the rye has always been the best crop on the farm. We thought it was a coincidence at first, but it happens each time, so it’s definitely doing some sort of good.”

 

The initial crop of Coull Farm rye was harvested in 2017 and the Bruichladdich team decided to use it unmalted, settling on a 55/45 rye/barley mash bill. The size of the mash was reduced from the usual seven tonnes to 4.5 tonnes and mashing time was increased, as rye is known to be difficult to mash in conventional mash tuns. It has a tendency to turn porridge-like in the draining stage, sometimes becoming ‘stuck’ and taking up to 30 hours to clear. Fermentations may also be more lively than desired, unless a ‘non-foaming’ variety of rye is specified.

 

Bruichladdich’s production director Allan Logan explains, “Distilling rye is quite a challenge, but happily, the end result has been very worthwhile. There are noticeable differences from malted barley, in the aromas through the fermentation, to tasting the new-make spirit. It’s got a really sweet, floral aroma, but peppery, with added spices.”

Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie Distillery, with a bottle of the distillery's inaugural whisky, RyeLaw. Credit: InchDairnie

Following on from Bruichladdich, the latest ‘Scotch rye’ release is RyeLaw, from the low-profile InchDairnie Distillery at Glenrothes in Fife. Established in 2015, InchDairnie is equipped with a hammer mill, mash conversion vessel, and mash filter rather than a traditional mash tun. This kit makes for much easier mashing when using grains other than malted barley, with the hammer mill producing a very fine grist. To date, wheat, oats, and rye have been distilled at InchDairnie, as well as malted barley.

 

Reflecting on InchDairnie’s experiences with rye to date, distillery founder and managing director Ian Palmer observes, “There’s no book written for making rye whisky. USA regulations state a minimum 51 per cent rye content, so that was our starting point to get the ratio of rye to barley. Eventually we settled on 53/47 malted rye to malted barley. In the US, they specify using virgin oak casks, so we did the same.”

 

Most Scottish rye is grown for animal feed or to produce biogas, but the InchDairnie team secured a supply from the Black Isle, north of Inverness, to distil in 2017. This produced the first batch of RyeLaw, released in April 2023. Subsequently, a five-year contract was negotiated with a farmer in Fife to grow rye in the distillery’s ‘home’ county.

 

Rye whisky is only produced for two weeks each year at InchDairnie, but it became an annual staple after the first distillation produced excellent new-make spirit. RyeLaw is fermented using a rye-specific yeast, which results in lower yields but higher flavour, and is distilled in a Lomond-style still, which comprises a column still with six plates above a pot. As distillery manager Scott Sneddon explains, “Only lighter spirit gets to the top, and it is ideal to give the style of rye spirit we want.”

 

Palmer adds, “The aim is for complexity of flavours, not a big rye hit. We were not making an American rye. We wanted a whisky true to its Scottish roots – malted barley and rye, clear wort, and batch distillation. Our rye is softer than American rye, easier drinking and with a breadth of flavour.”

Bruichladdich The Regeneration Project whisky, made with Islay-grown rye. Credit: Bruichladdich Distillery

Apart from the trio of ‘Scotch ryes’ above, other distillers have responded to the revival of interest in rye whisky. Burn O’Bennie Distillery in Banchory, Aberdeenshire has also distilled rye spirit, while rye is the staple output of Reivers Distillery at Tweedbank in the Scottish Borders.

 

Among the bigger beasts of Scotch whisky, Diageo offers a Johnnie Walker High Rye blend, with 60 per cent rye in the mash bill, and Chivas Brothers produces Chivas Regal Extra 13, which includes a parcel of blended whisky finished in American rye casks. Meanwhile, William Grant & Sons released a single grain Scotch whisky with a significant amount of rye in the mash bill from its Kininvie Distillery as part of its Kininvie Works series of experimental bottlings in 2019.

 

Also on the market is an intriguing blended Scotch whisky from Borders Distillery in Hawick. Named Malt & Rye, it comprises 63.8 per cent rye whisky and 36.2 per cent single malt whisky, both distilled by Borders in 2019 and matured in first-fill bourbon casks before subsequently being blended.

 

Whisky drinkers may have had to wait a while for new Scotch ryes to appear, but the chances are it will not be such a long wait for the next. The style is here to stay, bringing welcome new character profiles to the party.

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