Bergen. The sun was shining, which my Norwegian friends said was unusual. To be honest, I wouldn't have minded snow, but just being in northern lands in winter was treat enough. To celebrate, two of us headed out to do what all sensible people do when in a new city… go hunting for second hand vinyl. I ended up with a Soviet pressing of Led Zeppelin, a Frankie Miller best of, and some Tony Joe White, but not what I was vaguely hoping to find, some Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance.
It was surprising that one Norwegian had heard of Frankie Miller, but how many would have heard of Ronnie Lane? Few in Britain did, even fewer bought any of his work after he quit The Faces for a life in the country where he formed Slim Chance and began touring with them around Britain with a big top like some band of gypsies.
Why Ronnie Lane? I've always loved his songwriting, but after the night before, one of his tracks was nagging away. It's called 'Kuschty Rye'. It's a Romany term for good bloke, 'Kuschty" meaning bang on, cool. Why that track?
Because on the night in question I had done a class where I had shown six whiskies blind. No Scotch, instead there was Nikka Coffey Grain, Balcones Blue Corn, a collaboration between Mackmyra and Norway's Ægir brewery, Clement rhum agricole, Chichibu's Chibidaru quarter cask and Stauning Young Rye from Denmark.
The aim wasn't to try and fool people, but to show the possibilities of flavour within this thing which we call whisky.
The idea that it has to conform to a Scotch or Bourbon template is fast disappearing. Rye is becoming the go-to grain. It used to be this virtually unobtainable American whiskey.
Writers, bartenders and some drinkers ranted about its scarcity. What we meant really was why isn't there more American straight rye. This was the style which was seen as 'real rye', whereas in fact rye was happily being made across the border in Canada.
That's not rye? Well, it's not straight rye, but it does give a defining flavour to most of Canada's brands. There's not a lot made? Try saying that to Alberta Distillers which makes more than all the straight rye in the US. For proof of how great Canadian rye is, check their Dark Horse. There's a bit of Canadian irony. Unfancied but brilliant. Dark Irony Horse perhaps? If there's one brand which can turn people's head to the quality of Canadian rye (other than Whistlepig) then this is it.
But rye is no longer just a North American speciality. I've been working on a new edition of the World Atlas of Whisky (out this autumn), and rye seems to be the grain which is ticking most boxes internationally.
It's appeared in the most unlikely places. There's Stauning of course, but I've also tasted rye as part of a mixed mashbill in St. George in Norfolk, then later the same day I had a 100 per cent rye at Adnams. The new Lakes distillery is looking at rye, while Darren Rook is planning one for The London Distillery.
I've sipped on a spectacular example aged in Condrieu from Domaine des Hautes Glaces in the French Alps, seen its signature as one of the three malted grains in the amazing Puni from the Italian South Tyrol, and reacquainted myself with Patrick Zuidam's Millstone from Holland.
Why rye? Every distiller I've spoken to says rye is tricky. It sticks in the mashtun, it foams in the washback like a Mento dropped into cola. It is tough, it is volatile, it is idiosyncratic and troublesome. Maybe Dark Horse is right on another level. Rye is the wild mustang which needs to be tamed (but never totally broken) because it always has that glint of danger in its eye, that bite, that spice. Why persevere then?
It's a challenge.
As Patrick Zuidam said to me, "it's my pride because it's so difficult."
What is fascinating is that none of these examples - including the Canandians - have the dusty flour notes you get in straight rye. They don't even taste like each other… yet they all taste of rye. Different distillation regimes, different cooking, mashbills, oaks, growing conditions. There is no longer just 'rye' but many ryes and that is what 21st whisky is about.
Distillers all round the world think rye is kuschty. Time to follow them.