Untangling North America's rye roots

Untangling North America's rye roots

Transplanted from Northern Europe, this is the untold story of how rye became North America’s favourite whisky in the early 19th century. By the late 1850s, bourbon supplanted rye, after which rye whisky also became synonymous with Canada. Rye’s piquant flavours have guided North America's whisky development and continue to influence world tastes

Production | 08 Oct 2023 | Issue 192 | By Chris Middleton

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Rye lands in North America


Rye was introduced to North America by the Dutch. They had long been familiar with this grain as part of their ancestral diet and in distillation since the 1500s. The first American-grown rye was harvested on Manhattan Island, New Amsterdam, in August 1625. While wheat, barley, oats and rye plots were planted, scarcity prohibited grain distillation. William Henrick was permitted to distil cider into brandy in December 1640 on neighbouring Staten Island. America’s second rye crop was harvested at Lynn in 1633, a few kilometres outside Salem, Massachusetts. Virginia’s Jamestown colony followed five years later. Whereas wheat and barley were the principal grains for human consumption, English colonists were less familiar with rye, as its agricultural uses had long shifted to livestock feed and spring ground cover. The east coast’s acidic sandy glacial soils proved suitable for rye cultivation with their deep roots and hardy nature. Sown in the autumn and reaped as a spring crop, it was drought and disease-resistant; rye flourished in the frigid winter conditions along America’s east coast.


Englishman Emmanuel Downing was the first to distil rye in America after his brother-in-law, Governor Winthrop, consented to let him ‘make strong waters’ at an Ipswich house-turned-tavern outside Salem, Massachusetts, in October 1648. In 1637, Downing landed in Salem with a German rye recipe, later purchasing a still in Boston for £10. However, his lack of knowledge and experience in fermenting and distilling rye mashes resulted in failure. He quickly abandoned rye to distil Barbadian molasses, where his young rum gained acceptance. Colonial distillers embraced rum production over the next century, making it America’s most popular liquor. The future of rye lay not with British immigrants but with soon-to-arrived Northern European colonists from Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia. The destiny of American rye whisky rested steadfastly with one religious community that was part of a Dutch diaspora who were the leading exponents of Northern Europe’s nascent distilling industry.




Britain and rye’s fall from grace


Since the Middle Ages, rye has been a popular grain in Britain. In 1250, it represented 19 per cent of grain cultivation at 6.74 million bushels or 1.19 million acres. Anglo-Saxon England, August was called Rugern, rye harvest month, reflecting the grain’s importance. In Saxon Germany, the populace was known by the epithet Rugii or rye-eaters. By the early 1800s, rye had fallen out of favour to 1.16 million bushels, much of this livestock feed. During the 1700s London gin boom, 10% of the mash was rye, making London malt spirit and compounded gin less pungent than Holland’s Geneva, employing high rye mashes between a third to three-quarters rye. Whisky distillers in Scotland and Ireland mashed limited rye recipes until the early 20th century. Dr Andrew Ure reported in 1843, ‘barley and rye are generally employed for making whiskey.’ Malted rye was used in pot stills to thicken and make the spirit heavier, adding body. Rye mashing increased after the invention of the column still. Abbey Street distillery in Londonderry, one the first to adopt the Coffey still in 1833, marketed ‘rye malt spirit’ to London retailers in 1834. William Virtue, managing director of United Distillers Ireland, testified their company’s patents stills used 36 per cent rye in 1907 but needed extended maturation in cask. Irish distilleries used similar ratios of rye, except in Cork, where they substituted oats or wheat to make a milder version of Irish whisky. Ross Wilson, managing director of the conglomerate Distillers Company Limited, stated their patent distilleries in Scotland, ‘we use barley, maize, rye and oats,’ including malted rye in his 1907 testimony.




Mennonites spearhead rye distilling


William Penn’s offer of 5,000 acres in the newly foundered colony of Pennsylvania to persecuted Mennonites encouraged them to leave Europe, arriving in Philadelphia in October 1683. Over the next hundred years, 100,000 German-speaking immigrants, many Mennonites and kindred Amish settled in Pennsylvania. Originally a Dutch Protestant sect, part of the Anabaptists, they were known as the Menist sect from 1554. After recodifying their dogmas in 1632, their name reverted to the 16th-century teachings of their Dutch founder, Menno Simon. In the 16th century, the Dutch actively advanced or led Europe's emergent brandy, gin, schnapps, vodka, whisky and New World rum industries. Dutch Mennonites spread across northern Europe, playing instrumental roles in developing the grain trade, liquor retailing and erecting distilleries in Prussia, Poland and later Russia. The Dutch built the famous Danzig distillery in 1598 (closed 1945), operated by Mennonite families Wedling, Hekker and Bestvater. They built and managed rye distilleries in Konisberg, Memel, Ebling, Tilst, and Grosse Werder. In the 1700s, the Dutch gained Russian distilling concessions to improve the manufacture of vodka, privileges reserved for Russian nobility.


In the early 1700s, Philadelphia operated half a dozen rum distilleries worked by English Americans, while in rural Pennsylvania, Dutch and German Mennonites grew rye, conveying surplus grain for household distillation. The Mennonite's first commercial rye distilleries started production in the 1750s. America’s pioneer Mennonite legacies are still visible through rye whisky brands and crumbling distillery buildings. Johann and Michael Shenk started a rye distillery in 1753, passing it to John Kratzer, another Mennonite; his sons sold the distillery to Mennonite Abraham Bomberger in 1860. After a succession of owners, the distillery was ultimately renamed Michters in the 1950s before closing in 1990. Henry Oberholzer was another Mennonite who erected a mill and distillery in 1810; his whisky was Anglicised to Old Overholt Rye. Rittenhouse Rye was first branded in 1935 as Rittenhouse Square Rye. The square in Philadelphia was named after David Rittenhouse, the 18th-century Pennsylvanian astronomer whose great-grandfather and grandfather were the first Mennonite bishops in the colony.



Leap-frogging rye regions


The emergence of distilleries capable of producing commercial volumes for trade sales and export was evident in the late 1700s. By 1810, rural distillers sold ‘country rye’, but as new Philadelphia distillers entered production, they upped the ante with ‘prime rye’ claims. As farmers moved west from the Atlantic coast through the piedmont and into the fertile valleys and Allegheny plateau, distilling communities followed. Local traders, grocers and taverns blended stocks from local distilleries selling to the Republic’s growing population of ten million by 1820. As farming communities moved west, what began as generic Pennsylvania rye became Tuscarora, Allegheny, Pittsburgh and Monongahela ryes as regional ryes multiplied in the 1820s. Neighbouring Maryland had Baltimore and Maryland rye. Before the Civil War, other States had regional rye whiskies. Virginia had Alexandria, Oronoko, Rockbridge, Roanoke and Virginia Mountain rye. There were North Carolina ryes, Tuscaloosa rye in Alabama, and rectified New Orleans rye. Kentucky’s first whiskies were marketed as Kentucky ryes and Western whisky. ‘Bourbon whiskey’ first appeared in a Kentucky newspaper in 1821, selling whisky barrels sourced from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Fifty years later, bourbon became an official classification of whisky. In the 1870s, journals reported Kentucky’s whisky was differentiated with at least ‘eight-tenths more corn.’ Dominated by sweet mash and flavoured with a small percentage of rye, discernible taste differences between straight bourbon and rye whiskies split American whisky into two straight whisky classifications. Rye whisky remained a staple production at many Kentucky distilleries. Frankfort’s Hermitage distillery manufactured ‘Pure rye sour mash whiskey’ as did Edmund Taylor Junior’s at his Old Crow distillery from 1872. Today, America’s leading brands of rye are made in Kentucky: Rittenhouse, Old Overholt, Sazerac, Wild Turkey and Michter’s.


These regional names were not necessarily discernible whisky styles but places of production. The most famous was Monongahela rye. Where the Monongahela meets the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, Jonathan Plummer was the first farmer-distiller in 1769. After the Revolutionary War, small distilleries populated the farms along the Monongahela River, leading to surplus production shipped to the east coast markets of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Ohio River flatboats carried rye whisky to spreading settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains into proclaimed American Indian Lands. Shipping from remote hinterlands resulted in a more delectable and pleasing whisky as distillers charred barrels to reduce fusel oils through the carbon membrane filtration and prolonged storage before the annual rollicking river voyages increased maturation time mellowing the whisky. During much of the 19th century, the provenance and character of the different rye regions were constantly changing tableau. Introducing new landraces and varieties of European ryes, the mish-mash of numerous grain recipes, and significant changes in distilling practices and new technologies relentlessly altered rye’s flavour rubik. Barrel treatments and maturation programs were greatly affected by the modes and speeds of steam-powered transport systems, from slow riverboats and paddle steamers to speedy railroads. Blending, rectification and adulteration also modified each region's flavour characteristics.




Canada’s unstoppable rise of rye


The Mennonites played another critical role in developing rye whisky in Canada. Immigrating from Pennsylvania to Upper Canada's Waterloo area in 1786, families such as the Shenks, Bambergers and Elbs planted rye and erected mills and distilleries over the next three decades. Samuel Elb established a distillery in 1804, one of around seventy stills registered in Upper Canada. English colonists distilled mainly wheat and barley, whereas the Mennonites brought rye and patent American wood stills, suitable for distilling-on-the-grain with rye and corn mashes. After the 1819 Wooden Still Act, a dozen distilleries operated around the Toronto region, shifting from molasses and English mash bills to rye and corn. Edward Shuttleworth’s Humber River distillery heated smooth river stones in wooden tubs ‘to provide a surface on which beer and steam could meet.’ It was colloquially known as ‘rocks in the box’ distilling. One of the world’s largest distilleries in the 1860s, Gooderham & Worts, started in October 1838 in Toronto. Their 1839 mash bill was 27 per cent rye chops (rough grist), 13 per cent middlings (refuse wheat flour) and 60 per cent malt. In 1840, rye’s proportion increased to 37 per cent. Inland Revenue for Toronto reported the average mash bill for Canadian whisky distillation in 1884 was 75 per cent corn, 17 per cent rye, 5 per cent barley and 3 per cent oats.


In 1851, whisky production totalled 1,174,589 gallons in British Upper Canada and 303,600 in French-oriented Lower Canada. The arrival of American entrepreneurs John Wiser in Prescott in 1858, and Hiram Walker to Windsor in 1859, heralded competition from larger-scaled enterprises at over 25 bushels a day. In Waterloo, Henry Coby and Joseph Seagram opened distilleries in 1859. Similar to the new start-ups, Walker’s distillery mashed bills of 80 per cent corn with rye and barley, duplicating the rye-flavoured bourbon recipes popular in the U.S. By 1870, propelled by export demand for whisky during America’s Civil War, the Big Five distilleries produced more than 85 per cent of Canadian bourbon and rye whisky.




Mother of necessity, maketh rye


For Germans and northern Europeans, rye was the dominant grain. For the British, it was a less familiar cereal for brewing and distilling. British brewers had long shunned rye for barley in their ales, claiming its butyric fermentation produced undesirable essential oils (later called fusel alcohols). Benjamin Franklin highlighted this issue in 1765 when he wrote Poor Richards Almanack, ‘How to manage the distilling from rye,’ stating the problem was sediment burning and essential oils caused an empyreumatic taste ‘generally vile smell and taste that renders them very disagreeable.’ British settlers were learning to ferment and distil rye mashes from their Dutch, German, or Deutsch neighbours. As grain cultivation spread west, rum lost its ascendency as transporting rum into the rural hinterlands doubled the price. The Revolutionary War and Britain’s blockade of American ports helped flip consumption from rum to whisky. By 1810, whisky and fruit brandy (apple and peach) were 90 per cent of domestic spirits production. The same year, Pennsylvania’s most popular grain was corn and wheat, with barley and rye a third of corn’s volume. The 1850 U.S. Census reported rye fell to 17 per cent of Pennsylvania’s mash bill, from 24 per cent in 1840, representing 42 million gallons of whisky. The 1840 Census reported that Pennsylvania harvested 1,438,555 bushels of corn and 517,180 of rye. Rye at this time yielded between one gallon (farm still) up to four gallons (commercial distillery) per bushel – averaging 2.5 gallons per bushel, which would be 1,292,000 gallons. Yet the Census reported 6,240,193 spirit gallons, the greater bulk of it sold as rye whisky. Overwhelmingly, rye whiskies were liberally mashed with varying ratios of corn.



Potent and sticky grain to mash


The two major problematic compounds for rye are its high proportion of beta-glucans and essential oils metabolised during fermentation. The beta-glucans foam the fermentation becoming thick and gummy, leaving viscous, challenging to sparge wort, while amino acids and cell proteins reactant into essential oils (fusel alcohols) and synthesised into flavoursome esters. Pot distillation demands skills to limit excessive fusel contamination avoiding nauseating taste and adverse physiological effects. Pennsylvanian distillers were at the vanguard inventing steam manufacturing apparatuses, charging soupy mashes of rye and corn for ‘distilled-on-the-grain’ with new patent stills. Rye cereal’s sapid combination of carbonyls, phenolics and other volatile compounds produces a pungent, spicy, earthy, and peppery spirit with aromatic clove notes and floral volatiles of lavender and bergamot. Worth the effort as rye punches much flavour above its small grain weight.



The chameleon, what is rye whisky


This was a vexing question until 1935. Until then, rye whisky had a wide berth needing to only have an amorphous taste of a whisky made from rye. Most rye was mashed with varying ratios of corn, wheat and barley, as rye was often twice the cost of corn in the mash bill. Hence, mash bills meant the cost of goods recipe to the distiller. ‘Demon whisky born of Rye’ first appeared in print in October 1794, describing the spirit distilled by the ‘insurrectionist’ distillers in Southwestern Pennsylvanian, the counties surrounding Pittsburgh. ‘Pure rye’ first appeared in a January 1807 newspaper notice. Initially, distillers attentively removed deleterious essential oils as advertised by Baltimore retailer Edward Downham, ‘Entirely free of Fusil Oil (sic), Metallic Salts, & Other Matter’, highlighting his proprietary rectification process to purify his whisky. Another newspaper announced in 1868, ‘Pure article of rye whiskey, free from poisonous ingredients and consequently less injurious than the old rye [so called when it lacks seven days of a week being “old”]’; advising maturation alone improved product quality. Rectifiers argued that redistillation and charcoal filtration represented purity. In contrast, some wholesalers claimed pure meant not rectified yet free of foreign or artificial additives. While compounders made versions of adulterated rye with dried peaches, sawdust and sugar to rectify spirits. By adding cinnamon, cloves and coffee, they imitated older double-distilled rye. In the 1870s, some brands confusingly advertised ‘Pure rye whisky same as Bourbon, except no corn is used in the mash.’ Some distillers mashed only rye with malted rye, signifying their whisky was ‘pure rye’ or ‘100 per cent rye’ grain. Others substituted malted barley for malted rye in the recipes and claimed pure rye.


If this terminology was not confusing, the mash bills were equally befuddling. Pennsylvania’s first whisky distiller handbooks presented the earliest manufacturing evidence of what constituted rye whisky. Michael Krafft’s 1804 American Distiller recommended recipes with half corn and rye with four per cent malt. Ideally, a five-day ferment using pot ale setback (sour mash), charred casks and charcoal filtering is ‘best used to improve spirit’. Because rye ‘abounds with oil,’ he advised better yields and a favourable spirit mashing corn and wheat with rye. Another Pennsylvanian, Harrison Hall’s The Distiller, recommended mash bills of 40 per cent corn, 45 per cent rye and 5 per cent malt — farm distilleries such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon in 1798 mashed high rye at 60 per cent. Company and public records are scant on recipes; however, mixed mashes of corn, wheat and barley get repeatedly observed in their rye whisky mash, like Gibson & Son's 1856 formulas in their Monongahela rye whisky. The world’s oldest existing bottled whisky is Baker’s Pure Rye, distilled circa 1847 in Monongahela Valley was recently carbon-13 tested, revealing a ‘mix of C-4 plant such as maize and C-3 plant such as rye or barley.’ Until the manufacturing and labelling standards from July 1935, the straight rye whisky statute required 51 per cent or more rye grain in the mash. There has never been a statute defining pure rye whisky. 

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