A Story of Two Ryes
Rye whiskey is the oldest style of whiskey made by the colonialists, with records dating back to the late 17th century and pre-dates the emergence of bourbon by 100 years or so. It appears to have been popular among Germanic immigrants who had made rye-based spirit back home.
Early ryes were made in two styles, Pennsylvania Monongahela rye (80-95% rye, balance malted barley) and the Maryland rye (around 2/3 rye and 1/3 other grain, mostly corn).
Despite the growth of the sweeter and smoother bourbon, in the 18th and 19th centuries the more robust and spicy rye was still the most popular American whiskey style right up to the prohibition. After the prohibition however, bourbon quickly became the whisky of choice, relegating rye to a secondary role. World War II eroded distilling capacity as the stills were converted to produce industrial ethanol for the war effort, and it was the less popular rye that suffered the most. By the 70’s and 80’s bourbon was falling in popularity as vodka, tequila and gin mixed drinks became more popular with the younger consumer, and as for rye it almost disappeared completely. Fortunately, as we entered the 21st century, bourbon recovered (mostly due to clever marketing including the creation of ‘premium’ whiskies centered on’ single barrel’ and ‘small batch’ concepts), and we are now in the middle of a boom period for bourbon, and rye whisky started to piggyback on its success in the mid 2000’s
The Problem with Rye
In the case of rye today, much of that consumed is still produced by just two specialist companies, MGP in Indiana and Alberta Distillers in Canada. Many other distillers, both large and small, source this product from them as distilled spirit, or barrel matured, and then cross blend and market it as their own whisky.
One of the reasons for this is that rye is trickier to process than other grains. For a start It is difficult to mill. Also, it tends to gum up during mashing and can turn into ‘wallpaper paste’ making the extraction of the sugar a problem plus it has a tendency for sticking to the sides of the fermenters and stills. The use of other grains in the mash bill, particularly malted barley, can help alleviate this by providing specific enzymes that break down the beta-glucans that cause the problem. However, for many distillers it is simply easier to source rye whisky from specialists rather than trying to make it themselves.
Rye Whisky Options
Those customers looking for that rye ‘spice kick’ can select from high-rye bourbons (20-40% rye), Kentucky ‘low’ ryes (51-55% rye), full and Indiana ryes (65-95%) and 'single grain' ryes (100% rye).
Today we review two single grain ryes. We have the Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye and my local Reservoir Single Grain Rye.
Review: Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye.
Based in Calgary, Alberta, Alberta Distillers was founded in 1946 and has produced whiskies made from rye grown on the great Canadian Prairies for decades. It is the world’s largest producer of 100% rye whisky. It is currently owned by the Beam Suntory conglomerate. The 100% rye cask strength limited edition is a relative newcomer and is exported to the USA in small quantities. Recently, the whisky has fetched as much as 2x to 3x the retail price on the secondary market when the yearly retail supply has been depleted. It won a Double Gold Medal Award in its class at both the 2020 and 2021 SF World Spirits Competition. It was also named ‘Whiskey of the Year for 2021’ by the infamous Whisky expert, Jim Murray. Must have something going for it!
Mash bill: 100% rye.
Batch: Limited (small?) annual production batch.
ABV = Barrel Proof. This batch is 63.7% ABV.
Matured: Canadian regulations require at least 3 years of maturation in wood barrels. According to some sources this whisky is aged for a full 5 years in new, charred white oak barrels.
Cost: $75/750ml bottle. I was surprised to see a plain black plastic screw top.
Color: Old Gold 0.6 (Whisky Magazine scale). A light ‘golden amber’ color
Swirl: Complete, distinct but thin rim with many fine ‘legs’ forming and flowing quickly down the glass.
Nose: Neat – Thankfully, the alcohol vapor is not too overpowering. A sweet and appealing aroma, with toffee and vanilla, and some hints of crushed nuts, followed by baked rye bread.
Nose: Diluted to 50% ABV – Very similar, but the sweet elements are now a touch subdued, an additional faint floral/grassy note emerges along with unbaked dough aroma and some rye spice.
Taste: Neat – Smooth and rich with medium-high viscosity. The initial toffee sweetness is offset by a dry wood tannin influence. The rye spice emerges strongly and predominates. While this is happening, the alcohol heat develops and builds all the way up to a significant, ‘mouth wide’ fire hit, confirming its cask strength. Impressive, blunt. However, it needs some water to truly appreciate.
Taste: Diluted to 50% ABV - Rich in character and retains a wonderful smoothness, the sweet caramel/dry wood balance is well integrated and balanced. Along with the significant rye spice noted, additional elements of green tea and honey with some faint hints of orchard fruit emerge in the background. Rolling it around the mouth is an adventure as the water opens up the taste profile.
Finish: Medium to long length dominated by that rye spice.
Verdict: If you like Ryes, I am pretty sure you will like this. Everything that is great about ‘good ole’ rye whisky but presented in a smooth and sophisticated profile.
Review: Reservoir Single Grain Rye.
My nearest distillery, located in the Scott’s Addition district in Richmond has an interesting history. Around since 2008, it has concentrated on producing and selling single grain bourbon (corn), rye and wheat whiskies. They use open top fermenters, ¼ size alligator (level 4?) char barrels and a taste based rather than aged-based bottling decision point. They also produce several post maturation blends, with the excellent Holland series being the premium product, benefiting from the use of specific finishing barrels. (Try the ‘unreal’ Holland’s Milkman). More recently they have started to release whiskies made from mixed grain bills, BIB versions and experimenting using different size barrels. If you are in the Richmond area, it is worth the trip.
Mash bill: 100% rye.
Batch: 2020 Batch 9, Bottle 648.
ABV = 50% ABV.
Matured: Small, ¼ size barrels, heavy ‘alligator’ char, aged for 2-3 years. (The argument being that smaller barrels provide faster maturation)
Cost: $80/750ml bottle.
Color: Mahogany (1.6 Whisky Magazine scale). Dark red copper color.
Swirl: Thick with many thin ‘legs’ flowing quickly down the glass, and bigger short ones clinging to the side.
Nose: Strong, really attractive aroma, with minimal prickle. Caramel, burnt sugar and some hints of milk chocolate, overlaid on a mixed spice and nut base with some wood tones.
Taste: A distinct baking sugar sweetness at first but it fades as drier wood tannins kick in and the rye spices emerge in full glory. Becomes quite complex with hints of sour fruit, cinnamon, and black pepper. A nice heat develops and but does not dominate. A medium viscosity throughout.
Finish: Short to medium, with the spiciness being the last to fade away.
Verdict: A serious, complex, and powerful rye whiskey.
Side by Side: Alberta Premium v. Reservoir Single Grain Rye.
The Alberta was diluted to ~50% ABV for these notes. These are two intriguing ryes and share much of the classic rye profile. The Reservoir is darker in color and more distinctive on the nose. It is richer, sweeter, upfront and more interesting/challenging on the palette. The Alberta falls in that 'comforting' Canadian style, more sophisticated, lighter, smoother and less challenging, and presents a 'high quality' traditional rye taste profile. If I am drinking after work with the boss, I would choose the Alberta with a touch of water. If I am looking for an after dinner whisky or a night cap, I am going with the local stuff.