About seven years ago, John Pogue told me that the rye whiskey being made in Lawrenceburg, Indiana was the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to the category. I understand what he meant in that it made the whiskey popular again, but it also made all rye whiskey taste the same as producers copied the Lawrenceburg rye.
In the years that have passed, the category has grown. The Old Pogue distillery makes an excellent 100% rye malt whiskey, Maysville Club, now. The Leopold Bros. Distillery is using a three chamber pot still to make a rye, harkening back to the 19th century distillers in Pennsylvania. It is changing, slowly as more artisan distillers release their rye whiskeys, but unfortunately, most of them are trying to recreate the whiskey made at the Ross-Squibb distillery in Lawrenceburg. I thought I would look at what else they could do to make an interesting, high quality rye whiskey.
First of all, let’s look at the mash bill. There seem to be only two schools of thought on rye mash bills: 95-100% rye and barely legal rye with mash bills at barely over 51% mostly made by Kentucky distillers. I personally like the flavor malted barley brings to whiskey so why not use 10-20% malted barley in the mash bill and throw away the manufactured enzymes used to convert starch to sugar but do not provide any flavor. How about using some beer malts like caramel or chocolate malt in the mash bill?
I tasted the new make from Finger Lakes Distillery when they first opened and they were using an heirloom variety of rye that gave the new make a nice orange blossom honey flavor, so why not experiment with heirloom varieties of rye? Corn does add sweetness to whiskey but does it have to be 40% corn? How about using it as a flavor grain like Bourbon uses rye and only put in 10-20% corn? I believe that Alan Bishop at the Spirits of French Lick uses beer malts in his Bourbon so I would like him to do so with a rye whiskey.
Next, let’s look at distillation. As mentioned, Leopold Bros. is using a three chamber pot still to make a rye and it is very good rye whiskey. However, I don’t think you would need to buy a new still to change up distillation. Distill it at a lower proof to let more grain flavor come through the distillation process. Try a sweet mash process like Peerless and Wilderness Trail use to make their whiskey. Both make excellent rye whiskeys.
Barrel entry proof is another way to make a different rye whiskey. Wilderness Trail was putting their rye whiskey in the barrel at about 100 proof. Lower entry proof does change the flavor by allowing more sugars from the wood to enter the whiskey at a younger age. Another change in aging could be less char in the barrel and more toasted wood. Use a number two char and a heavily toasted barrel, placing the emphasis on the butterscotch flavors that toasted wood brings to the whiskey.
I would like to see a rye whiskey made with 70% heirloom variety rye, with 15% corn, 10% distiller’s malt and 5% caramel malt, distilled at no higher than 125 proof and placed in a heavily toasted barrel with a number two char at 103 barrel entry proof. If any of the artisan distillers are making such a rye whiskey, let me know. I want to try it.
Rye whiskey should enjoy as many variations in taste profiles as does Bourbon. It simply takes a little imagination and experimentation to produce such a whiskey. There are many talented distillers in the artisan distiller field today and they should be making such experiments. The field is wide open and one of them will produce the next great rye whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller