I frequently hear about rye grain giving Bourbon a spicy flavor, but I am not sure the spiciness of a whiskey necessarily comes from the rye grain. After all, if rye is the source of spice then why isn’t the 95% rye whiskey made at MGP, which is the source of many of the rye whiskeys on the market, not dominated by spicy flavors? These whiskeys should be very spicy due to the high amount of rye, but I don’t find them any spicier than many Bourbons with a third of the amount of rye.
I find that rye has a sharper flavor, but I am not sure I would describe that sharpness as spice. I also find when I taste a rye new make spirit, that rye has an herbal flavor of grass and mint. There does tend to be a little pepper flavor in rye new make, but I would not say it is the dominant flavor of the grain. Citrus and honey are also found in several of the new make rye whiskeys that I have tasted. Rye is a very complex style of whiskey and to narrow its flavor contributions to spice does it a disservice.
If Bourbons that are spicy are so due to the rye, then how about the spice in a Bourbon made from wheat? There are some pepper notes in Old Fitzgerald and there is no rye at all in that Bourbon. There are other sources of spice in a whiskey. I think that these other sources are pushed into the background by consumers because they are always told that the spice comes from rye.
Fermentation is one source of spice. Four Roses has a yeast strain known for its spicy flavors. Other yeast strains also can create these same spicy flavors in smaller amounts. Just because your whiskey was made with a yeast strain that is dominated by say, a fruit flavor, it does not mean that it is not also creating some spice flavors as well. Fermentation creates a lot of different flavors because yeast also create a lot of different flavor components other than the one that is dominant.
Another source of spice is maturation. Oak tannins give the whiskey a dry and bitter note, but they often break down with oxidation into spicy flavors. Maturation and oxidation can also break down flavor components made during fermentation and so that too can be an additional source of spice.
Rye grain does add flavor to a Bourbon. I was once given a taste of new make rye from Finger Lakes Distillery that was made with an heirloom strain of rye grown on a farm near the distillery. I remember it had the rye grass herbal notes and a lot of orange blossom honey notes but I don’t remember any particularly strong spice notes. It does make me want to experiment with other heirloom ryes to see what interesting flavors come out in the whiskey.
The next time someone states that a whiskey has “rye spiciness”, ask them “what do you mean by that?” It may be a spicy whiskey, but that spice may not come solely from rye, and in some cases, most of the spice may come from another source of flavor.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller