The rise and rise of ryes

Revol at Le Domaine des Hautes Glaces agrees. “All our ryes are 100% rye, but actually they are made with 100% malted rye,” he says. “At the domaine we are malting all our grain to transform starch in to sugar. If you don’t do that you have to cook your mash and add enzymes or malted barley.”

It’s the approach to distillation, the type of still used, the way the grain is fermented, and the make up of the mash bill – the proportion of rye to other grains in the initial mix used to make the whisky – that is driving the increasingly diverse array of European rye whiskies. But according to Zuidam, it’s still early days.


“So far it has been difficult to get a clear image as to what differences there are between the variety of rye grain and the final whisky produced,” he says. “But we are planning some extensive trials with different varieties and older varieties to find the perfect rye for whisky. As for the finished rye whiskies, there are huge differences between the different countries. In the US and Canada you see the mash bill mostly consisting of 51% rye and then a lot of corn and some malted barley for the starch conversion.”

Over in Austria, spirits educator Arthur Nägele says that it is just a matter of time before a whole range of different rye whiskies will be produced across Europe.

“In countries such as Germany and Austria the distillers, many who have been creating spirits for centuries, are used to making spirits with different grains such as spelt, oats, wheat and rye,” he says.

“Whiskies from the alpine region, including rye whiskies, are improving very fast. The distillers have realised they have to adapt the way they distil genevers or beaux de vie to make good whisky and they are now bottling some very good whisky.”

With rye whisky it’s necessary to make major adjustments to the distillation process, and it takes considerable skill to produce any spirit at all, let alone a decent one. Rye goes gloopy like thick wallpaper paste and causes huge filtration problems. The carbon dioxide produced tends to burst out of the solution, so that it explodes and fires gloop all over the distillery. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

“From a production point of view rye is a disaster to work with,” says Zuidam. “The higher the rye content of your mash bill, the more difficult it is to work with. The problems are in all stages of the production. It is more difficult to mash in. This is because the rye makes for an extremely thick mash about the consistency of wallpaper paste that makes mixing it with the hot water more difficult. It is difficult to ferment. Because of the thick, glue-like nature of the mash it tends to foam a lot, so you need slow cool fermentation – up to eight days in our case. We distill it in a pot still. You can imagine that distilling wallpaper glue in a pot still places special demands on the pot stills and the distillers. You need careful, slow distillation, gentle heating, constant agitation.”

Zuidam believes that for this reason rye will not become as prevalent as other whisky styles, but he thinks a variety of rye whiskies will appeal to an increasing number of markets.

“I don’t think everybody will rush to start producing rye whisky. It is just too difficult a grain to work with,” he says. “But I think rye whisky is here to stay. It tastes different and has its own group of followers that will keep growing as more people taste it.”

No doubt about it – it’s a style of whisky on the ryes.