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Old-world distilleries join the rye-whiskey party
SINGLE-malt whiskies are the pride of Scotland, where strict regulations require that they be made only from malted barley. But at the five-year-old InchDairnie Distillery in Fife, some 30 miles north of Edinburgh, many of the stacked oak casks in the warehouse are filled with a spirit primarily made from a different grain: rye.
Once rarely found outside North America, rye whiskey has enjoyed a burst of popularity over the past decade, bringing it international renown. Now, InchDairnie and other old world distilleries are joining the party. In Scotland and across Europe, whiskey makers are starting to produce their own versions of what was once considered a distinctly American spirit.
It's definitely not a matter of copy-and-paste: Made on a traditional Scottish pot still and aged in new American oak, InchDairnie's RyeLaw has the peppery, spicy notes of many American ryes but with a healthy dose of Scotch smoothness. The release date is not yet set, though it should be available within the next two years, both locally and in the United States.
"As far as the definition of American rye is concerned, it meets that definition," said Ian Palmer, the distillery's founder, referring to the requirement that American rye be made from a mash of at least 51 per cent rye grain. "It will be similar in some respects, because rye is rye. But we're saying this is InchDairnie, this is RyeLaw, and we don't want to simply replicate somebody else."
About an hour's drive north of InchDairnie, Arbikie Highland Estate released Scotland's first rye in more than a century in 2018, using grain grown on its own farm. On Islay, in the Inner Hebrides islands, Bruichladdich announced in 2017 that it had started distilling rye spirits. None have been released yet.
Producers in Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have recently released or announced the production of rye whiskies.
Many whiskey traditionalists might find that hard to swallow. In his 2014 book, Tasting Whiskey, Lew Bryson called rye "an American classic", noting that it was "the patriot's drink" during the Revolution; the grain also often plays an important role in Canadian whiskey.
Rye whiskey nearly disappeared in North America a generation ago, but its use in the recent craft-cocktail revival led sales to grow more than tenfold over a decade, reaching 1.1 million cases in 2018, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That has led to renewed interest in regional versions like Maryland rye and Monongahela rye, as well as new interpretations like the Empire ryes from New York state.
Although rye has a pronounced American identity, distillers point out that the grain itself has deep roots in the old world, especially in Northern and Eastern Europe. At Kyro Distillery Co, a six-year-old producer in the Ostrobothnia region of western Finland, distiller Kalle Valkonen compared the flavours of his spirit to those of another local culinary staple.
"In 2017, when Finland was turning 100 years, rye bread was voted to be the national dish," Mr Valkonen said. "We have a really, really intimate relationship with rye and especially rye bread. If we want to make a particularly Finnish whiskey, it needs to be rye."
Like InchDairnie, Arbikie and other European distillers, Kyro produces its rye whiskey on a pot still, rather than the column stills commonly used in the United States.
Otherwise, there's a good amount of regional variation. InchDairnie makes its spirit with malted rye, though Arbikie uses unmalted rye; both use less than 60 per cent rye in total, with the remainder being malted barley.
At Kyro, the mash bill - the list of grains used - is 100 per cent malted rye, echoing the traditionally all-rye recipe of Finnish bread, Mr Valkonen said. (Many American versions contain 51 per cent rye, the legal minimum, or just slightly more, while relatively few are made from 80 per cent, 90 per cent or even 100 per cent rye.) In Southwold, on the Suffolk coast in England, the Adnams brewery and distillery was inspired to make its rye whiskey by the nearby village of Reydon, whose name means something like "rye on the hill".
Adnams Rye Malt was initially released as a 100 per cent rye spirit in 2017, said the head brewer, Fergus Fitzgerald, and is currently made from 75 per cent rye malt, distilled on a pot still using rye grown by the company's owner.
"We'd already made a couple of whiskeys, obviously with barley, and we did one with some wheat and some oats and barley, but we hadn't done anything with rye, although we were using rye in one of our beers quite a lot," Mr Fitzgerald said. "So that came up, that conversation about Reydon having this historic link to growing rye, and then Jonathan Adnams said he would go and grow it."
Although many farmers consider rye easy to grow, it is seen differently by brewers and distillers. Compared with the well-behaved barley used in single malts, rye has a reputation for causing trouble.
"Rye is a really sticky grain," said Kirsty Black, the distillery manager at Arbikie. "It's got different components inside it. It wants to be sticky and gluey. It's hard to handle, that."
That stickiness can add many hours to the otherwise simple process of separating the wort, the sweet liquid that then undergoes fermentation, from the leftover grain.
Mr Adnams uses the same brewhouse to make both beer and whiskey. When the company started making its rye, Mr Fitzgerald said, his employees began watching the schedule more closely. "People were booking holidays deliberately around the days we were going to brew it because it just took so long," Mr Fitzgerald said. "No one wanted to brew it. It was just so painful." NYTIMES