The rise and rise of ryes

But the strong flavour of the spirit began to fall out of favour and was dealt a near-fatal blow by Prohibition. Now, with big flavours back in favour, rye has found a new audience.

American ryes tend to fall into two distinct categories: aged premium products such as Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year Old, Thomas H Handy and Sazerac 18 Year Old; and less expensive ‘fire water’ ryes that have taken centre stage in the world of cocktails. It doesn’t matter what sort of American rye you’re talking about, chances it won’t be easy to find much, such is the demand.


Now, though, the world of rye whisky is in the process of opening a new front – and it’s being driven by ‘new world’ whisky producers in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Australia and Austria. What’s more, the new kids on the block, some of them with many generations of distilling experience, are bringing myriad new flavours to the field of rye whisky. Monsieur Revol, it would seem, might be close to the mark when he talks of rye giving Scottish single malts a run for their money when it comes to variety – and perhaps the view that rye is to other grain whisky what Islay is to single malt isn’t so outlandish after all.

When it comes to quality and innovation there are few companies that can match Zuidam in the Netherlands. The family firm, now managed by the original founder’s grandson, Patrick Zuidam, makes no fewer than 600 drinks products, using the finest ingredients to make top-quality spirit and liqueurs.

Zuidam has something of a passion for whisky, though, and for a long time has pushed at its boundaries. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he was a European pioneer, alongside some Austrian distillers, when it came to making rye.

“I distilled it a few years ago and then left it to mature, but when I returned to it some time later it was awful,” he recalls. “I had to decide whether to tell my father that I had bought this expensive grain and had ruined it, or whether to keep quiet, leave it, and hope everyone would forget about it. So I left it. And a few years later it had turned into this amazing whisky. Now I wish I had made 100 times more rye than I did 10 years ago.”

Zuidam’s latest rye is called Millstone 100, and it has just picked up a gold medal in the International Spirits Challenge awards. It is called 100 because it is 100 months – more than eight years – old, it is 100 proof (50% abv) and it is made with 100% rye.

That last detail is important. There is a view that you can’t make a rye whisky just of rye and that a small amount of malted barley is necessary to kick-start the conversion of sugars and starches into alcohol. Not so, says Zuidam.

“You can produce a 100% rye whisky. You can use malted rye to do the starch conversion. It’s not really efficient or fast, but it gives a beautiful flavour.”