Earlier this month, Ian Buxton looked at some of the unusual cereals that go into whisky. Today, he’s zeroing in on one particular grain that’s having its moment in the sun. So, put your feet up, pour yourself a dram and join us for a tour of the wide world of rye whisky, or whiskey, if you prefer.

Back in 2012, I wrote a book on world whiskies which, despite being embarrassingly out of date, the publisher kept reprinting (they can do that). However, they’ve finally agreed to a new edition which, if you’re curious, you can pre-order here, [plug, plug] though you’ll have to be patient as it won’t be published until September. (Hint: good timing for Christmas!)

In the new book, I’m looking at the whole craft whisk(e)y scene alongside the dramatic growth of ‘world’ whiskies, outside the five main distilling nations. And one thing kept leaping out at me – rye whisky. It’s a style that has just exploded in the past decade and that, I think, comes down to an interesting combination of factors.

the stills at Arbikie Distillery

Rye made here: the stills at Arbikie Distillery

Reasons rye

Firstly, new small distillers have to stand out in the market so need a point of difference. What better than an unusual grain?

Second, new small distillers like to show off a little bit (apologies: that should read ‘explore heritage varieties on their authentic, handcrafted journey’) and what could be better than an unusual grain that’s technically quite demanding to distil? 

Then there is the whole explosion in interest in classic cocktails, like the Manhattan, many of which were traditionally made with rye. This began in the US, spread quickly to the hipper end of the UK bar scene but, with the COVID lockdown spurring drinking at home, domestic experimentation has soared. We’re all mixologists now.

And finally, it just tastes damn fine!

European rye

Once, of course, rye was confined to blue-collar drinkers in the USA. “And them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n rye” sang Don McLean in his 1971 hit American Pie. At the time rye was the perfect metaphor for the pervasive air of nostalgia and decline that saturates his lyrics. Rye was a drink on the skids in the ‘70s.

But almost everything in whisk(e)y is circular and by the early 2000s, American rye distillers were seeing explosive growth. The world quickly followed and now we can enjoy great rye not just from its traditional home but Holland, Denmark, Sweden – even Scotland.

Yes, Scotland, where the Arbikie distillery looked into the historical record to see rye being used in distilling whisky more than a century ago. Today, it produces two versions. The first, a ‘Scottish Rye Whisky’ in line with the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009, consisting of over 51% Rye combined with Odyssey malted barley, both estate-grown at Arbikie, and an American version in line with techniques typically used in North America. Scandalous!

Arbikie makes Scotland’s only rye whisky (so far). Not so in the Nordics where the funky guys at Helsinki Distilling make a stand-out rye that. Our colleagues at That Boutique-y Rye Company have a Helsinki Distilling Company 2 Year Old bottling. 

The distillery is located in a frankly brutalist brick building that has previously served as an abattoir, power plant, soap factory, meatball factory (hope they cleaned it first), wine cellar and car wash in an old industrial area that’s now achingly trendy and expensive – think Hoxton and you’ve got a general idea.

And they’re not alone. Their rivals at Kyro have made its Kyrö Malt Rye Whisky from 100% wholegrain Finnish cereal – hard to believe if you believe Finland to be shrouded in perpetual darkness and covered in gloomy birch forests but considerable amounts of high-quality rye and barley are grown here.

Sticking with Europe’s craft scene, I’ve long been an admirer of Millstone’s 100 Rye ever since presenting it at a tasting in Amsterdam and my Dutch audience flatly refusing to believe that it could come from anywhere but America. Sadly, it seems to have sold out but the Boutique-y Rye Co. has come to your rescue with a delicious alternative, Millstone 3 Year Old.

American rye

So, to the USA we must return and from a cornucopia (cornucopia – see what I did there?) of very fine rye whiskies from rye whiskey’s ancestral home, I briefly give you these triplets.

Adam Spiegel from Sonoma Distilling raising a glass

Cheers! It’s Adam Spiegel from Sonoma Distilling

Pikesville is a revered name from rye’s history. Sadly their Straight Rye (an all-time bargain) appears to have been discontinued as rye moves upmarket but you can’t go wrong with Pikesville 6 Year Old 110 Proof Straight Rye from one of the truly great names.

From the new wave of US craft distilleries lookout for Catoctin Creek’s bottles and the distinctive Sonoma Cherrywood Rye where the spicy notes we look for in great rye are wrapped round with hints of smoke.

And there’s more to explore and, I suspect much, much more to come for the enthusiastic catcher in the rye.

In case you thought there was a typo in the title, it’s actually a reference to a poem by Robert Burns, ‘Comin thro’ the Rye‘. But of course, you knew that already.