When you think of rye whiskey, you think of North America. The two are entwined by history and lore, and it’s hard to imagine sipping a glass of rye without musing on its traditional homeland. This whiskey love affair is a ballad for the ages but, as with most things in life, it wasn’t always wrapped up in rose-tinted memories and romanticism. It started as many of these things do: through necessity.
In the early 19th century, rye was the American grain. Thought to have been heavily planted by European settlers making their home in the new world, it was the ideal frontier crop. Rye was hardy, simple to grow (in relative terms) and helped fill empty bellies on a relatively small yield. The 19th century was also a time where farmhouse stills were numbered in the tens of thousands across the US and, as always, people would turn to what they have when looking to distil a spirit. The early passions for rye whiskey only grew and it wasn’t long before it was the de facto spirit of North America. But, like all great love stories, it couldn’t be all plain sailing.
Rye whiskey was about to get hit with a one-two punch that it would almost never recover from. New, gutsy varieties of corn – capable of braving colder weather – made it the cereal en vogue in the US. As American farmers switched to this new, cheaper grain, their mashbills too became corn rather than rye-based. The second and far more damaging event (as it was for so many in the drinks industry) was the introduction of Prohibition. With these two factors, rye started on a decline that continued for the next half-century. It seemed America had fallen out of love with rye, but all was not lost. Through a combination of changing palates and curious bartenders, rye whiskey has once again launched itself into the hearts of drinkers around the world – and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Across the Atlantic, European distillers are starting to see the appeal of a grain that’s been growing there for thousands of years.
“For us Finns, rye as a grain has been really important culturally,” Kyrö Distillery’s head distiller, Kalle Valkonen, tells me. “We hope that in the future Finland will be a country known for its premium rye whisky.” Kyrö has embraced its rye heritage and has dedicated itself to producing 100 per cent rye spirits, which comes with its own challenges.
Rye whiskey was about to get hit with a one-two punch that it would almost never recover from
“Obviously there has been a steep learning curve,” Kalle carefully explains. He recounts how their first mash tun wasn’t up to handling rye, “Sometimes I would spend hours breaking apart the rye lumps swimming around the mash tun with a paddle.”
Building on this experience, Kyrö now works with equipment that is specifically designed for dealing with the troubles presented by rye. It also uses a two-step fermentation process with a specifically chosen yeast strain that produces what Kalle describes as a “complex and full flavour profile” followed by a “spontaneous lactic fermentation” coming from the bacteria in the rye itself. Using only Finnish rye in their spirits, Kalle and the Kyrö team are fully committed to creating their interpretation of a “fundamentally Finnish whisky”. Kalle adds, “Our connection to rye is so tight that the Finnish-style dark rye bread was voted to be the national dish in 2017.”
Kyrö fully embraces this cultural connection with every spirit it makes but it’s not something totally exclusive to Finns. Elsewhere in Scandinavia, down in Denmark, a similar love of rye is creating waves at Stauning distillery. “Rye bread is really, really important in Denmark,” says Alex Munch, co-founder of Stauning Distillery. “If you go to a school today and you open up the lunch boxes, you will see rye bread,” he adds with a smile. Unlike Kyrö, rye whisky wasn’t always on the cards for Stauning. “It was malt whisky that was the plan,” confesses Alex. However, a tasting of rye whiskies was enough to convince them it would be worth trying their hands at distilling it. The experiment paid off and Stauning now dedicates more than 50 per cent of its production to rye.
Stauning currently offers two expressions of rye whisky. The first is a traditional style and the second is its ‘Bastard’ release, which boasts a mezcal cask finish. “It seems like the rye reacts so much better with the wood than barley,” Alex muses. This gives the team a lot more wriggle room when it comes to experimentation, which they’ve fully taken advantage of. “We have a rye whisky at the moment matured in a mizunara cask and that is amazing!”
This bold experimentation is rooted in the Stauning team’s goal of creating their own style of whisky: a new Nordic style that stands apart from Scotland, Ireland and even America. “I think the inspiration came from the Nordic food movement,” says Alex. The success of Noma, the two Michelin-star restaurant which embraced its Scandinavian roots to deliver now world-famous culinary endeavours, helped Stauning see that its Nordic culture and traditions could actually be applied when creating its whisky.
Across the North Sea, traditions have long been in place at the Adnams Brewery (and now distillery) in Southwold. Having been brewers for almost 150 years, the Adnams team have had experience with all sorts of grains but even they found challenges when creating a 100 per cent rye mash.
“Apparently it’s very interesting to watch ferment,” says John McCarthy, head distiller at Adnams. Due to its differences with a standard barley mash, the brewers have said they could find themselves captivated and staring at it for hours. John originally joined Adnams as part of the engineering team, to help keep the brewery running, but, as is often the case in the drinks world, events soon transpired that led him down a different path. John led a project to turn a disused area of the brewery into a distillery and after completion he became the head distiller.
“I was the only one who knew how to turn it on – that’s what I tell people!” he jokes. That was 10 years ago and since then he’s had the chance to try his hand at many different spirit styles. “We had days where we weren’t distilling. So, I started making… stuff – just as experiments,” John tells me. “The rye came about because, as brewers, we used some rye as part of the recipes for our beer.”
As well as the challenges in production John points out that, compared to other grains, rye has an overall lower yield. “People say rye is expensive because it is hard to work with; rye is also expensive because you don’t get as much alcohol out of rye as you do out of barley or wheat,” he explains. John points out that a tonne of distilled rye will net you about 25 per cent less than a tonne of distilled barley. He feels these details make the rye whisky aimed at the ‘whisky connoisseur’ who would be more inclined to care about the little details, such as the rye used at the distillery being grown on Jonathan Adnams’ (the company’s chairman) farm, which gives the whisky a truly wonderful sense of local authenticity.
Just shy of 500 miles away, off the west coast of Scotland, authenticity is at the heart of everything Bruichladdich does. “At Bruichladdich, we have a unique barley growing partnership set up with around 20 Islay farmers annually,” says Christy McFarlane, Bruichladdich’s global brand manager. Bruichladdich’s philosophy when distilling rye goes much deeper than just the end spirit. “Our motivation for distilling rye originated from a conversation between partner farmer Andrew Jones and our production director Allan Logan, where Andrew asked, 'What else can we try?’”
As it turned out, using rye from Islay had many advantages. It allowed Andrew to add another crop to his rotation at Coull Farm on Islay’s west coast, helping the soil structure and reducing wind erosion while providing Bruichladdich with what they describe as a ‘deeply flavourful spirit of unparalleled provenance’. “We’re keen to explore first and navigate Scotch regulations later,” Christy added.
Bruichladdich’s commitment to traditional practices presented its own challenges with the production of a rye mash. “If you are to ask any Bruichladdich mashman what their most challenging mash was, rye will certainly be near the top of the list,” Christy tells me. Adam Hannett, head distiller at Bruichladdich, adds, “Each mash is different and without having done this before, you know what you want to achieve but not exactly sure how to do it yet. With a mashtun like this (open-topped, cast iron, and dating back to 1881), you can only do what you can do. You can’t change it.”
Bruichladdich first distilled a rye spirit in 2017 but Christy says they’re still experimenting with different recipes, “In December 2020, we experimented with a blend of peated malt and rye blend, so while there are differences in the mash tun, there will also be differences in the cask type and malting profile for us to experiment with before bottling.” It may be many years before we see Bruichladdich’s perfected experiments being released but, back on the mainland, another Scottish distiller has already launched a rye whisky to market – the first of its kind in the modern era.
Arbikie is now the first Scottish distillery in 100 years to release a rye whisky. John Stirling, one of three brothers who founded the distillery, explains, “As a Single Estate farm-based distillery in Scotland we were perfectly positioned to recreate this lost art of rye whisky.” He voices a similar view to Bruichladdich when it comes to rye benefiting agriculture, “We believe the link between our environment, soil, crop variety and whisky production has been somewhat lost. Scotland used to be full of farm-based distilleries.”
Reflecting on the new Arbikie Highland Rye 1794 release, its third mature rye expression to come to market, he adds, “Apart from creating a fantastic Scotch, rye is a great grain and as such helps us create a more sustainable way of farming. The straw is fantastic for the soil, much better than barley or wheat.” Arbikie wanted the rye to take centre stage of this new expression but, in order to comply with regulations concerning the definitions of Scotch whisky, it had to maintain the solid backbone of a Scottish single grain whisky and be labelled as such. For the 1794, the team settled on a mash of Arantes rye, malted Odyssey barley, and Viscount wheat. All were sourced from their family estates in Angus and the end result brings together a rich tapestry of flavours.
“If you haven’t tasted rye Scotch yet, you should – you will be surprised. This is a dram of the future,” John adds. While only time will tell to see if he is right, we can be certain that in the future when people think of rye, they won’t just think of North America.