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

·9-min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

To be a native son of Pennsylvania is to be the heir to a long tradition of rye whiskey. Starting with Bomberger’s Rye Whiskey (later to become Michter’s), which was said to have “warmed the Revolution.” The Whiskey Rebellion was almost certainly brought to a boil by Pennsylvania stills full of rye mash. And in 1810, Abe Overholt started making his Old Overholt Rye Whiskey in Pennsylvania, which now can claim the honor of being America’s oldest brand of whiskey.

I first visited Michter’s in 1987, when it was still humming. It was a seminal moment and I embraced rye whiskey as a proud Pennsylvanian. But the category almost tragically died in the mid-1990s. Every year there were fewer rye drinkers around and just a handful of distilleries producing a token amount of it. It still saddens me to think how close we came to losing rye altogether.

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So as a proud Pennsylvanian, it has been wonderful to witness the rebirth of American rye whiskey. Now, most major distillers are making the spirit, and it’s a signature of the craft distilling movement and the rebirth of the cocktail.

But this Pennsylvanian whiskey, this American whiskey, turns out to be…well…not all that American after all. Distillation of rye actually came to the United States by way of German immigrants.

“It’s entirely a German transplant,” said David Wondrich, the noted cocktail and spirits historian and a Half Full colleague). “The first mention of distilling rye in America is in correspondence between people in the Massachusetts Colony in 1648, where one of them asks about the ‘German recipe’ for making rye whiskey.”

The letter, which is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, is from Emanuel Downing in Boston to John Winthrop “at Pequoyt,” dated April 13, 1648. “I have even now sold my horse to James Oliver for 10 to purchase the still, I pray remember me about the German receipt for making strong water with rye meall without 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 more & rather then the best spirits they bring from London.”

“Germany had a well-established industry of making spirits from rye,” Wondrich said. “They’d been doing it for a long time.”

And now you can buy rye whiskey from the Eifel Distillery in western Germany, near Luxembourg. The whisky is made from a mash bill of 90 percent raw barley and ten percent barley malt. It is distilled in a column still and then a pot still—much like the American rye whiskey made at the big distilleries. It is aged in a different variety of barrel each year: sherry, Bordeaux grand cru, Laphroaig or whatever the brand can lay its hands on.

If this twist in rye whiskey history wasn’t enough, to complicate matters, Dutch settlers also helped shape the spirit. Wondrich notes that the Dutch were the first to industrialize distilling, and that there was definitely Dutch distilling in the U.S. Through the mid-1800s, the liquor these immigrants produced would have been genever, which was made from two parts rye and one part malted barley. A kind of Dutch rye! While it’s not called whiskey, it’s very, very similar.

“Rye grain has always been part of Dutch distilling history,” says Patrick van Zuidam, who runs his family’s eponymous distillery in the Netherlands. He knows a thing or two about the grain, since in addition to genever he’s now making actual rye whiskey. “The Dutch have been distilling rye into genever long before our Scottish friends started distilling their water of life.”

And it’s not just that the Dutch are fond of rye grain but there are other important similarities to Pennsylvania. “In the Netherlands, we used to have lots of farms on poor sandy soils,” he said. “In the south where we are and in the east of Holland, nothing much wanted to grow except rye. Rye is a hardy grain that doesn’t need much in the way of nutrition and water, so it endures where other grains fail. So, rye was often available and therefore it was distilled.” Sounds exactly like why southwestern Pennsylvania farmers made rye whiskey in the late 1700s.

Zuidam’s Millstone Rye ($100) was the first European rye whiskey I tasted and even though that took place seven years ago it was a revelation for me: oily, rich, intensely grain-forward. It’s distilled twice in old-fashioned pot stills, which conserves the rye flavor as much as possible.

While Dutch rye whiskey might sound like a unique oddity, an often-overlooked sign of consumers’ sudden interest in the grain has been a crowd of new rye whiskies made all over the world.

In Denmark of all places, Stauning is distilling a rye whisky that’s now available in the U.S. Hans Martin Hansgaard, one of the nine folks who founded the distillery, explained just how new an idea that was when the company started up. “There is no tradition for whisky making in Denmark,” he said, echoing van Zuidam. “The reason we started making rye whisky is basically a love for American rye whisky. One could say that rye bread is defining for Danish food culture. We took the bread and bottled it. It is not as fierce, fiery and spicy as an American rye, but it is very smooth, very complex and the flavors of the rye [and] barley really shine through. You can smell and taste the kinship to the dark roasted bread.” To me it is a cleanly-flavored, approachable rye, reminiscent of open skies and fresh winds.

Even Canadian whisky, long known as “rye” but often (and unfairly) derided by American whiskey aficionados as not having “enough” rye, has stepped up to the bar with 100-percent rye whiskies.

“Our Canadian Prairie rye is, in my opinion, some of the best rye grain you can get,” stated George Teichroeb, the general manager of Alberta Distillers Ltd. (ADL) in Calgary. The grain is “grown with care by local 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 only that rye: no malted rye and no malted barley to provide the enzymes needed for converting the starches to fermentable sugars. “We use home-grown enzymes, versus malted grain enzymes, which tame the rye and allow us to control the mashing, fermentation and distillation process,” Teichroeb explained. “That’s why we can run 100 percent rye 100 percent of the time.”

But it’s ADL’s new Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye ($75) that has turned American whisky skeptics into Canadian whisky believers. It’s cask strength, more than 60 percent alcohol by volume and rocking with flavor. The second edition is arriving soon, and people who got to try last year’s are looking forward to it. “It was crafted to provide our whisky fans with the purest form of our 100-percent rye whisky: straight from the barrel,” said Teichroeb.

Another Canadian rye got a lot of press back in 2015 when it was touted as the world’s best whisky. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye may or may not not be the “world’s best” (if there can even be such a thing), but at 90- percent rye and with the blending expertise of Crown Royal behind it, the whisky is certainly worthy of your consideration.

But the latest major player in the global rye whisky category is also the most unexpected: Johnnie Walker.

The famous Scotch brand just released Johnnie Walker High Rye ($35). This isn’t a whole new whisky, but rather a focus on something they already do very well. Blended Scotch is made from a mix of single malts from different distilleries and so-called grain whisky. What is the difference? Single malt is made from only malted barley in a pot still and grain whisky can be made from a number of different grains and produced on a column still. So for this High Rye Johnnie, grain whisky made with a large percentage of rye was blended with a mix of single malts. Kind of like blending Scotch with Pennsylvania rye.

The label for this new Walker names some of the “signature distilleries” that provided the single malt – Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glenkinchie–as well as Cameronbridge, which made the grain whisky. It’s very unusual to see Cameronbridge on a label, since it is the enormous and practically anonymous grain distillery that powers much of Johnnie Walker.

Cameronbridge is one source of the “High Rye” in the whisky’s name. The other, surprisingly, is Teaninich, one of Diageo’s biggest malt distilleries. Teaninich has no mash tun, but uses a mash filter, and I can’t help wondering if this old-is-new-again technology is why they chose to distill the “difficult” grain there.

Johnnie Walker whisky specialist George Harper gets shared creator label credit on the High Rye along with revered blender Jim Beveridge (who recently announced his retirement). “Because we are using malted rye at Teaninich,” Harper said, “the rye spirit produced there is actually a pot still-distilled single grain.” Malted rye needs no barley malt to convert the mash, so it’s a single grain. So if it was malted barley instead of rye, it would be a single malt, not a grain whisky. That’s a neat little thing!

But, of course, the most interesting thing about Johnnie Walker High Rye is the whisky itself.

Taste it next to the classic Johnnie Walker Black Label, and the difference is clear. The High Rye has the sweet malt and fruit of the iconic Black, with just a hint of the familiar smoke, but the rye gives it a youthful liveliness and a crisp edge. As Harper said, “this will be a great whisky for people who enjoy rye whiskey and are looking for a unique, new expression of rye flavor.”

That’s what I learned from this tour of non-American ryes. Not all rye whiskies have to taste the same or even similarly, and new hands, new minds are finding new flavors in this old ingredient. We’re just getting started on what this quirky grain can deliver in a glass, and it’s an education to taste what’s out there now.

Rye is rising, and the future is positively kaleidoscopic.

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