January 26, 2022

Turns Out Rye Whiskey Isn’t an American Creation After All

8 min read


To be a local son of Pennsylvania is to be the inheritor to a protracted custom of rye whiskey. Beginning with Bomberger’s Rye Whiskey (later to turn into Michter’s), which was stated to have “warmed the Revolution.” The Whiskey Rebel was virtually actually delivered to a boil by Pennsylvania stills stuffed with rye mash. And in 1810, Abe Overholt started making his Old Overholt Rye Whiskey in Pennsylvania, which now can declare the distinction of being America’s oldest model of whiskey.

I first visited Michter’s in 1987, when it was still humming. It was a seminal second and I embraced rye whiskey as a proud Pennsylvanian. However the class virtually tragically died within the mid-Nineties. Yearly there have been fewer rye drinkers round and only a handful of distilleries producing a token quantity of it. It nonetheless saddens me to suppose how shut we got here to shedding rye altogether.

In order a proud Pennsylvanian, it has been fantastic to witness the rebirth of American rye whiskey. Now, most main distillers are making the spirit, and it’s a signature of the craft distilling motion and the rebirth of the cocktail.

However this Pennsylvanian whiskey, this American whiskey, seems to be…nicely…not all that American in any case. Distillation of rye truly got here to america by means of German immigrants.

“It’s fully a German transplant,” stated David Wondrich, the noted cocktail and spirits historian and a Half Full colleague). “The primary point out of distilling rye in America is in correspondence between individuals within the Massachusetts Colony in 1648, the place certainly one of them asks concerning the ‘German recipe’ for making rye whiskey.”

The letter, which is within the assortment of the Massachusetts Historic Society, is from Emanuel Downing in Boston to John Winthrop “at Pequoyt,” dated April 13, 1648. “I’ve even now bought my horse to James Oliver for 10 to buy the nonetheless, I pray bear in mind me concerning the German receipt for making robust water with rye meall with out maulting of the Corne…”

He then writes, most immodestly, in October of 1648 that “I haue wrought in stilling these 3 moneths, the water I mak is desired extra & quite then the very best spirits they carry from London.”

“Germany had a well-established trade of constructing spirits from rye,” Wondrich stated. “They’d been doing it for a very long time.”

And now you should purchase rye whiskey from the Eifel Distillery in western Germany, close to Luxembourg. The whisky is constructed from a mash invoice of 90 p.c uncooked barley and ten p.c barley malt. It’s distilled in a column nonetheless after which a pot nonetheless—very similar to the American rye whiskey made on the large distilleries. It’s aged in a distinct number of barrel every year: sherry, Bordeaux grand cru, Laphroaig or regardless of the model can lay its arms on.

If this twist in rye whiskey historical past wasn’t sufficient, to complicate issues, Dutch settlers additionally helped form the spirit. Wondrich notes that the Dutch had been the primary to industrialize distilling, and that there was positively Dutch distilling within the U.S. By the mid-1800s, the liquor these immigrants produced would have been genever, which was constructed from two elements rye and one half malted barley. A sort of Dutch rye! Whereas it’s not referred to as whiskey, it’s very, very comparable.

“Rye grain has all the time been a part of Dutch distilling historical past,” says Patrick van Zuidam, who runs his household’s eponymous distillery within the Netherlands. He is aware of a factor or two concerning the grain, since along with genever he’s now making precise rye whiskey. “The Dutch have been distilling rye into genever lengthy earlier than our Scottish pals began distilling their water of life.”

And it’s not simply that the Dutch are keen on rye grain however there are different essential similarities to Pennsylvania. “Within the Netherlands, we used to have numerous farms on poor sandy soils,” he stated. “Within the south the place we’re and within the east of Holland, nothing a lot wished to develop besides rye. Rye is a hardy grain that doesn’t want a lot in the best way of vitamin and water, so it endures the place different grains fail. So, rye was typically accessible and due to this fact it was distilled.” Sounds precisely like why southwestern Pennsylvania farmers made rye whiskey within the late 1700s.

Zuidam’s Millstone Rye ($100) was the primary European rye whiskey I tasted and regardless that that passed off seven years in the past it was a revelation for me: oily, wealthy, intensely grain-forward. It’s distilled twice in old style pot stills, which conserves the rye taste as a lot as attainable.

Whereas Dutch rye whiskey would possibly sound like a singular oddity, an often-overlooked signal of customers’ sudden curiosity within the grain has been a crowd of latest rye whiskies made everywhere in the world.

In Denmark of all locations, Stauning is distilling a rye whisky that’s now accessible within the U.S. Hans Martin Hansgaard, one of many 9 people who based the distillery, defined simply how new an concept that was when the corporate began up. “There isn’t any custom for whisky making in Denmark,” he stated, echoing van Zuidam. “The rationale we began making rye whisky is principally a love for American rye whisky. One may say that rye bread is defining for Danish meals tradition. We took the bread and bottled it. It isn’t as fierce, fiery and spicy as an American rye, however it is extremely clean, very complicated and the flavors of the rye [and] barley actually shine by. You possibly can scent and style the kinship to the darkish roasted bread.” To me it’s a cleanly-flavored, approachable rye, paying homage to open skies and recent winds.

Even Canadian whisky, lengthy generally known as “rye” however typically (and unfairly) derided by American whiskey aficionados as not having “sufficient” rye, has stepped as much as the bar with 100-percent rye whiskies.

“Our Canadian Prairie rye is, for my part, among the finest rye grain you may get,” acknowledged George Teichroeb, the final supervisor of Alberta Distillers Ltd. (ADL) in Calgary. The grain is “grown with care by native farmers and nourished by nutrient-dense, glacier-fed spring water from the Rocky Mountains. It’s incomparable.”

It’s so good that ADL makes whisky with solely that rye: no malted rye and no malted barley to offer the enzymes wanted for changing the starches to fermentable sugars. “We use home-grown enzymes, versus malted grain enzymes, which tame the rye and permit us to regulate the mashing, fermentation and distillation course of,” Teichroeb defined. “That’s why we are able to run 100% rye 100% of the time.”

But it surely’s ADL’s new Alberta Premium Cask Power Rye ($75) that has turned American whisky skeptics into Canadian whisky believers. It’s cask energy, greater than 60 p.c alcohol by quantity and rocking with taste. The second version is arriving quickly, and individuals who acquired to strive final yr’s are wanting ahead to it. “It was crafted to offer our whisky followers with the purest type of our 100-percent rye whisky: straight from the barrel,” stated Teichroeb.

One other Canadian rye acquired quite a lot of press again in 2015 when it was touted because the world’s finest whisky. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye could or could not not be the “world’s finest” (if there may even be such a factor), however at 90- p.c rye and with the mixing experience of Crown Royal behind it, the whisky is actually worthy of your consideration.

However the newest main participant within the international rye whisky class can also be probably the most surprising: Johnnie Walker.

The well-known Scotch model simply launched Johnnie Walker Excessive Rye ($35). This isn’t an entire new whisky, however quite a concentrate on one thing they already do very nicely. Blended Scotch is constructed from a mixture of single malts from completely different distilleries and so-called grain whisky. What’s the distinction? Single malt is constructed from solely malted barley in a pot nonetheless and grain whisky could be constructed from a variety of completely different grains and produced on a column nonetheless. So for this Excessive Rye Johnnie, grain whisky made with a big share of rye was blended with a mixture of single malts. Form of like mixing Scotch with Pennsylvania rye.

The label for this new Walker names among the “signature distilleries” that offered the one malt – Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glenkinchie–in addition to Cameronbridge, which made the grain whisky. It’s very uncommon to see Cameronbridge on a label, since it’s the huge and virtually nameless grain distillery that powers a lot of Johnnie Walker.

Cameronbridge is one supply of the “Excessive Rye” within the whisky’s title. The opposite, surprisingly, is Teaninich, certainly one of Diageo’s greatest malt distilleries. Teaninich has no mash tun, however makes use of a mash filter, and I can’t assist questioning if this old-is-new-again expertise is why they selected to distill the “tough” grain there.

Johnnie Walker whisky specialist George Harper will get shared creator label credit score on the Excessive Rye together with revered blender Jim Beveridge (who just lately introduced his retirement). “As a result of we’re utilizing malted rye at Teaninich,” Harper stated, “the rye spirit produced there may be truly a pot still-distilled single grain.” Malted rye wants no barley malt to transform the mash, so it’s a single grain. So if it was malted barley as an alternative of rye, it could be a single malt, not a grain whisky. That’s a neat little factor!

However, in fact, probably the most fascinating factor about Johnnie Walker Excessive Rye is the whisky itself.

Style it subsequent to the basic Johnnie Walker Black Label, and the distinction is obvious. The Excessive Rye has the candy malt and fruit of the long-lasting Black, with only a trace of the acquainted smoke, however the rye provides it a youthful liveliness and a crisp edge. As Harper stated, “this will likely be an amazing whisky for individuals who get pleasure from rye whiskey and are in search of a singular, new expression of rye taste.”

That’s what I realized from this tour of non-American ryes. Not all rye whiskies should style the identical and even equally, and new arms, new minds are discovering new flavors on this outdated ingredient. We’re simply getting began on what this quirky grain can ship in a glass, and it’s an training to style what’s on the market now.

Rye is rising, and the longer term is positively kaleidoscopic.

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