Rye is the spice of life for American whiskey. Also known as Secale cereale L., the erect annual grass towers over others with its flat leaf blades, dense flower spikes and long awns. The hardy grain endures drought, harsh winters, sandy soils and low fertility to grow just about wherever planted. Farmers use it as a cover crop to suck up unwanted nutrients and attract pests from weaker plants. If the Zombie apocalypse or a nuclear war breaks out, good old steady rye would survive over soybeans, sugar beats and corn, well, maybe not the GMO corn, that's genetically modified.
To us whiskey drinkers, modern rye offers up descendants of yesterday's Pennsylvania rye distilleries that cranked out rye whiskey once commonly referred to as Monongahela, named after the distillery's water source, the Monongahela River. Pioneers travelled West with jugs and barrels of Monongahela to barter, trade and drink.
"The best and greatest quantity of rye whiskey is made on this (Monongahela) river," wrote traveller Zadok Craker in the 1817 book, The Navigator.
Rye is the welcomed secondary grain in Bourbon's 51 per cent corn minimum mashbill. It is the undisputed spiced-up backbone of rye whiskey.
Perhaps, no grain stands out stronger or more pronounced in a dram than rye.
Its spicy flavour profile is undeniable.
But, times have changed and rye is no longer a necessary crop for American farmers. In 1922, Americans picked more than 6.7 million acres of rye.
Today, rye is a forgotten crop, relegated to cover cropping for corn and soybeans.
In 2012, 1.3 million acres of rye was planted throughout the United States with only 250,000 acres harvested for grain production.
Alas, only a handful of American distillers actually use U. S. grown rye.
Tuthiltown Distillery's Hudson line uses rye from the Tantillo farm a few miles from its facility, and Dark Horse Distillery picks Kansas rye, but these are smaller productions.
"(There is) no commercial rye is available in the U. S. due to the expansion of corn for ethanol production," says Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve, which uses rye from the Canadian prairies.
Morris is right. In America, with farmers receiving tax and market incentives to plant corn, other crops struggle to win over dirt.
"Rye is a minor crop, often planted but not harvested for grain," says Ed Allen, the Cross Commodity Analyst for the United States Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA, there were 97.16 million acres of corn planted last year with 87.38 million harvested for grain (hurt by the drought). By contrast, since World War II, rye's best year came in 1998 when a measly 1.5 million acres were planted and only 418,000 harvested.
Since then, rye harvests have represented less than 40 percent of the total plantings and hovered between 200,000 and 380,000 acres harvested.
Patrick Westhoff, the director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri- Columbia, says rye is the same boat other crops; they're all having "a hard time competing with corn. We definitely have increased overall acreage of corn in this country," he says. "There's less land available for pretty much everything else you are going to have. High corn prices, good corn returns, definitely has pushed people to plant as many acres of corn they can." So, where are Bourbon and rye whiskey distillers getting their rye?
Canada and Europe. The European Union produced 253 million bushels of rye in 2012 compared to America's 3 million bushels in the same period.
Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge believes European rye is better for whiskey making anyway.
"Rye is very difficult to ferment," Rutledge says. "The best rye for distillation (flavour wise) is grown in colder climates." Like most Bourbon distillers, Four Roses analyses grains in organoleptic/sensory and chemical tests. Rutledge says he's mostly looking at rye from Canada and European countries, looking for a flavour profile and "falling numbers," a measure of enzyme activities.
"Rye is very high ratio of enzymes - much higher than other grains - and the higher the enzyme level the more foaming during the fermentation process. If the enzymes are too high the foaming during fermentation is almost uncontrollable," Rutledge says. "I've seen fermenters filled only half full and foam over when enzymes are too high. So, the selection process is a combination of desired sensory perception, starch content and enzyme level and the best rye in the last 15 to 18 years has been found in northern European countries." Four Roses 2012 distillate includes a mashbill with Finland rye, but most of the Four Roses rye comes from Germany. As for Rutledge's favourite, that's an easy one: "The best rye I think I've ever seen was a four out of five year stretch from Sweden," he says.
European rye in Bourbon is not likely to go away anytime soon. The EU represents roughly 53 per cent of the world's rye plantings, while Canada is easily North America's rye leader. US farmers are not going to stop planting corn anytime soon. The money is just too good, and rye doesn't pay.
So, the next Bourbon you have with a rye mashbill, just know you're not drinking an American-based rye.
Those days are long gone.