Being renowned as big, rich and spicy differentiates rye whisky from the rest of the whisky crowd, and a distinct identity is certainly an advantage. The disadvantage is that rye whisky is assumed to be incapable of anything else; like a bass singer who can’t reach notes higher up the scale. But rye whisky can deliver sweetness, fruitiness and earthy, floral notes providing complexity and a counter point to rye’s inherent spice. But achieving rye’s full potential means catering for its very specific preferences, otherwise rye’s behaviour can become highly disruptive.
The water temperature during mashing, for example, must be exactly as rye likes it. If it’s not hot enough the risk is incomplete cooking, and if too hot the result can be ‘rye balls,’ clumps the size of a golf ball that are cooked on the surface but not beneath. Either way, starch within uncooked grain won’t convert into sugars, compromising efficiency, consistency, yield of alcohol and in extreme cases spirit character.
Rye can also complicate mashing, as it adds a sticky, gooey aspect to the liquid proceedings. Fortunately, malted barley can help to contain this.
“Our rye whisky is distilled from 75 per cent rye and 25 per cent malted barley. The barley contains enzymes which help break down starches into sugars during mashing. But the barley husk also helps during lautering (mashing), by acting as a filter bed that aids the sticky, gluey liquid that rye produces,” says John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams in England.
Malted barley is actually a multi-tasker, also able to provide flavour, with corn added for the same reason.
“Malted barley adds some nuttiness and maltiness to rye whisky. We also add corn to Russell’s rye whisky, which contributes a white chocolate and cocoa note that rounds out the spice and black pepper from the rye,” says Eddie Russell, master distiller, Wild Turkey.
Another key source of flavour is of course the cask. In the USA rye whiskies must be aged in American oak 200 litre casks for two years to qualify as straight rye whisky.
“Templeton’s spirit profile is very fruity on the nose, with apples, pears, pineapple, and on the palate there’s plenty of pepper and spice, with light cinnamon. In the first three to six months of ageing the barrel has a substantial influence, adding caramel, vanilla, and burnt orange, which dovetail beautifully with the boldness and spiciness in the spirit,” says Shane Fitzharris, executive vice-president, global sales, Templeton Rye whiskey.
English rye whisky isn’t restricted to a particular type of oak, but requires at least three years ageing.
“We use virgin French oak casks which add a nice spice that you don’t get from American oak, and this enhances the spice notes present in the new make spirit, so it’s effectively a case of doubling the spice. The range of spices from French oak includes some vanilla and baking spices, which differs from the less subtle vanilla and coconut sweetness you get from American oak,” says John McCarthy.
A trio of cask influences including French virgin oak, Bourbon barrels, and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks were behind East London Liquor Co’s first London Rye Whisky released in 2018.
“The whisky retains characteristics present in the new make spirit: stewed apples on the nose, loads of dark chocolate, and hints of tahini and sea salt, with the grain providing fresh ginger, sarsaparilla and biscuit notes. The casks impart toffee, tobacco, vanilla and ripe cherry notes; the resulting balance of sweetness, fruit and umami is difficult to achieve using just one cask type,” says Andy Mooney, whisky distiller, East London Liquor Co.
In Scotland, Arbikie’s Highland rye whisky utilises two cask types.
“We use new American oak charred casks, and Pedro Ximenez casks which we feel balance the rye character with distinctive notes of dates, maple syrup and gentle oak,” says Kirsty Black, Arbikie’s master distiller.
As the range of rye whiskies continues increasing, this includes longer-aged specimens.
“The worry with longer ageing is that the oak will make the whisky even drier, and it’s already dry. Our oldest rye whisky is 11 years old, but everything is so smooth and mellowed out, with a little vanilla and caramel right at the front of the palate, mid-palate you get black pepper and spice, and when they show up they don’t explode in the way that rye whiskies can,” says Eddie Russell.
Rye whisky is distilled from varieties of winter rye (sown in the autumn and harvested in the following summer) and growing interest in provenance means the source can be a key credential. Arbikie, for example, cultivates rye on the distillery farm.
In the USA, North and South Dakota are sources of rye, but this isn’t where it all began.
“Rye was the original style of American whiskey, first distilled in Maryland and Pennsylvania where rye was cultivated, and it was traditional for some distillers to add a small amount of corn for sweetness. Sweetness and spice is a nice combination,” says Eddie Russell.
For all its tradition, the rise of rye is a recent phenomenon.
“Rye whiskey has seen exponential growth since 2009, this was down to the renaissance of classic cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, with rye the original style of whiskey used for cocktails. Cocktails are still at the heart of it, but in the past few years rye whisky is increasingly being drunk neat, with water, or ice,” says Shane Fitzharris.