Rye is usually associated with American whiskey, but innovators within Scotland’s distilling landscape are changing this narrative. SMWS ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor looks into what goes into the production of rye, the impact and future of this grain
Scotch whisky has never been more focused on innovation. We live in an age where experimentation and forward thinking as points of diversification are instinctively anticipated.
But the mash bill? If a single malt distillery dabbles in the use of any grain other than the sacrosanct malted barley, surely someone at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has an aneurism and cease-and-desist orders are issued?
Well, frankly, no. If the labelling on the bottle correctly reflects what’s in the bottle (specifically – if a grain other than malted barley or a continuous column still is employed then the resulting whisky must be labelled ‘grain’), Scottish distillers are free to experiment within SWA regulations.
Rye grain is a hardy crop, and it isn’t new in terms of making whisky. When Alfred Barnard visited Port Dundas in the 1880s, he reported that one of its two granaries contained ‘14,000 quarters of barley and rye’.
Clearly our American cousins have a well-established tradition of distilling with it, resulting in rye whiskey having its own dedicated category. And there have been hugely successful recent releases from both England and mainland Europe. So as far as exciting flavour-forward investigation is concerned, rye is very much on the up.
Curiously, initial conversations around re-introducing rye to Scotch whisky were not necessarily concerned with flavour, as Bruichladdich’s head distiller Adam Hannett explains. “We’ve been talking about the possibility of producing rye whisky since back in 2004, not long after Bruichladdich re-opened,” he says. “Back then we looked at it as an opportunity to keep Islay's farmers busy, and in doing so keep their fields in good nick. The idea of helping to rotate the crops on the island – rye to barley, barley to rye and so on – and looking after the biodiversity of the place speaks directly with what we’re trying to do here at Bruichladdich. In short, I used to go to school with one of the farmers we work with, we finally took a rye crop from him in 2017, and we’ve had more since.”
ABOVE: Allan Logan (L) with farmer Andrew Jones at Coull Farm, Islay, where the rye for The Regeneration Project was grown and harvested
A SAFE BET?
Ecologically sound and with heightened consumer interest – so far, we’re onto a winner, on paper at least. However, there is a lack of research on how to treat rye grain for making whisky. Even across the pond most of the knowledge is concerned with using corn to make bourbon. So Scottish distillers have had to lead their own way, very much into parts unknown.
“Having no source or reference on how to distil rye Scotch whisky – we became rye pioneers,” says John Stirling of Arbikie. “We had to find an appropriate rye variety to grow for distilling and grow it in our particular climate. And that’s before we even get it to the distillery!”
Talk to any distiller who’s endeavoured to process a rye mash and you’ll be met with a tale of hardship and woe. There are various issues, from unwanted frothing and lower alcohol yields to well-documented stuck mashes – where the mash gets so sticky that they can’t easily strain out the grain – and lots of problems cleaning up afterwards.
All of which can be cited as good reasons to not even bother.
ABOVE: Arbikie’s John Stirling
PICTURED: light barley (left) and dark rye crops side by side
ADAPT AND OVERCOME
Nevertheless, trials were and are being conducted, and not only by smaller independent distilleries. Diageo is also behind the rye movement, going as far as to use a rye-forward mash bill ingredient in its sainted Johnnie Walker livery – Johnnie Walker High Rye. Master blender Emma Walker gives us an insight into its conception.
“We started creating rye new-make as experimental stock to explore the flavours and to ensure we had the spirit available for future whisky innovation,” she says. “Research eventually led to the decision to create rye grain whisky at Cameronbridge in Fife and at Teaninich distillery, utilising the mash filter during the production process.”
ABOVE: Diageo’s Emma Walker
ABOVE: Teaninich distillery
Arbikie have undoubtedly gone all in when creating their inaugural releases of Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky, with mash bills containing only the very minimum of malted barley required for conversion of starch to fermentable sugars. They produce an individual, cereal-forward, lighter spirit with recognisable rye characteristics of toasted rye bread, lemon and liquorice.
But if you were expecting the big bold spicy hit more reminiscent of American rye, you won’t find it in Arbikie Highland Rye, where they’re deliberately choosing to highlight their lighter spirit character.
Paradoxically, in Johnnie Walker High Rye there are perceivable features of its American counterparts, with its full mouthfeel and deep spicy buzz. Which is surprising, considering that it contains a 60 per cent rye grain spirit, blended and bolstered with their traditional single malts including Cardhu, Glenkinchie and Caol Ila.
ABOVE: InchDairnie distillery
No-one would describe the whisky landscape in Scotland as a bunch of samey producers, making largely the same liquid. There is no logical reason to assume that the upsurgence in Scottish rye whisky would be uniform and bland.
A range of approaches and philosophies have been utilised as inspiration. Be it Fife’s InchDairnie distillery, who expressly studied the definition of rye whiskey in America, and added their own stamp by introducing malted rye, special yeast strains and distillation in their Lomond Hills still. Or Loch Lomond distillery, who are looking to complement their already established tradition of column still grain whisky with a slightly more weighty spirit, including a spirit derived from a 30 per cent rye mash as a natural extension of what their distillery already offers.
THE FUTURE OF RYE
At the time of writing, Arbikie Highland Rye Single Grain, Johnnie Walker High Rye, The Borders Distillery WS:01 Borders Malt & Rye and Bruichladdich’s The Regeneration Project have all been released for sale. But with releases from InchDairnie imminent, and rye spirit being produced at Loch Lomond and Lone Wolf distilleries (that we know of!), we are merely at the beginning of finding out what Scotland can offer, and each distillery is beginning a journey with far more uncharted areas than we’re used to.
There’s the potential of differing rye varietals, other grains, peating /smoking the grain, multiple still types and distillations. Then comes the ever-growing possibilities when it comes to maturation.
There is more than one way to make good whisky. Scotland has a long and proud history of producing whisky with a sense of forward thinking and freedom of expression. The rejuvenation of rye spirit could well be playing an important part in the next step in the evolution of the category.