Did Rye Whiskey Dwindle To A Hot Mess?

All the excitement about three chambered stills has made me go back to Whiskey By The Numbers, the big IRS tell all from the 1960’s, and take another look at the rye data. The table below is from this spread sheet. This post was also inspired by the recent superb writing from Clay Risen in the NYTimes who comes to some interesting conclusions about the legendary Maryland style rye. His article is a requisite before continuing.

We aren’t really going to find anything new here except expose some really interesting sources and data sets. My take on things is that the best is yet to come and we are about to see the emergence of the greatest ryes ever produced. The only new idea presented here may be using malt for style points and I present evidence that that happened historically.

The IRS gives us some very intimate data on new make rye whiskies, but it doesn’t shed much light on the situation of explaining Maryland rye. Rye whiskey, at the time, looked like a hot mess and not many still made it. The data implies there may have been two remaining three chamber stills in operation.

Are any of these whiskies Maryland style? My guess is that distillery 38 is the only Maryland distillery and likely the home of Baltimore Pure Rye (which I’ve had from 1941 and it was quite distinct!). All under one roof, distillery 38 alone, supports both of these excerpts from Risen’s article regarding mash bills:

According to Jaime Windon, a founder of Lyon Distilling, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the president of the Maryland Distillers Guild, the state’s whiskey makers mixed their rye grain with a high percentage of corn, which lends sweetness to balance the rye’s spiciness.

But Ned Wight, who owns New England Distilling and whose great-great-great-grandfather ran one of the largest distilleries in Maryland, says his family’s whiskey had no use for corn. (Though based in Portland, Me., his company makes its own Maryland-style rye, called Gunpowder.)

“Generally, old Maryland ryes were made with rye and malted barley,” Mr. Wight said.

Mash bills by themselves may not define Maryland rye and the still type may not either because distillery 38 uses a continuous doubler with a 5 plate beer still as opposed to a three chambered still.

When you look at what else the distilleries produced, many distillation parameters were used across bourbons and ryes. This implies a lack of involvement and tuning, or also possibly a greater emphasis on mashing and fermentation. I think excise officer constraint held many producers back from making their best product. Bourbon got a great deal of tinkering later on post prohibition from the Willkies and Kolachov’s of the scientific era while rye appears to have simply tagged along as an after thought. My hunch is that the ferments described here, specifically the mash bills, may have had heritages going back to the beginning of the 20th century, but not the distillation parameters.

Something to note is that at the time, many producers made multiple bourbon cuvees varying fermentation duration by multiples of 8 hour work shifts while rye producers seemed to avoid that and we only see one producer varying the percentage of backset (very minorly) on their presumably three chambered still and then distilling at very different proofs, a low and a high. This would make for unique blending stocks, but who can say what ratio they were produced in.

There was also a split on adding lactic acid cultures. In theory, we know what this parameter may influence, but not really in practice because pretty much every large player uses a lactic culture. Besides acidifying the ferment and reducing contamination by aroma negative bacteria, lactic acid bacteria can contribute enzymes useful for unlocking rose ketones. On the other hand, distillery 41 didn’t use a culture, but used plenty of backset to reduce their pH and declare themselves sour. As stated early, the backset contains plenty of broken down carotene compounds that saw both time under heat during mashing and then again in the still. In practice, the effect of the different methods is a toss up.

The NYTimes article touches upon yeasts, but the IRS data cannot help us much. The blanket distillation parameters make it likely that producers simply used a blanket yeast across both bourbon and rye.

We do get glimpses of rye production trends from the early 20th century in Lasche’s Magazine For The Practical Distiller. It is well worth doing a search for “rye” and skimming the results. There is a section on page 290 called Rye Talk and we see heavy preferences for Wisconsin rye and the avoidance of the grain altogether as prices increase and quality decreases. We find even more talk of rye on page 390 and notes of the inferiority of the new western ryes from the Dakotas. Back on page 104 the writers starts with “our Wisconsin rye” and a bias becomes evident. Rye malt “of excellent diastic quality” is mentioned which support my speculation that despite a general industry preference for malted barley, rye malt was used for style points and in whiskey 38b the 20% malt figure is well over the average. It is not unlikely that 38b used rye malt. Some details of the finickiness of rye malt a given on page 4.

This magazine has a Q & A section and we see some remarkable things getting asked:

I claim that pressure from excise officers prevented many producers from knowing their spirits intimately as well as stifling curiosity and experimentation, but Lasche’s Magazine demonstrates there may be limits to that assertion.

Distillery 2 made a sweet mash bourbon and corn whiskey. Only their rye used backset. The data implies everything was distilled on the same equipment.

In addition to four ryes, distillery 3 made three bourbons and one corn whiskey. They had holes in all of their data sets regarding doublers and min and max proof. Two of the bourbons appear to be variations based on fermentation duration. The four ryes appear to really only be two where they vary the percent of backset (very minorly) and then the distillation proof very significantly. The data implies everything was distilled on the same equipment.

Distillery 34 also made three bourbons which are all the same mash bill, but variations in fermentation duration. The data implies everything was distilled on the same equipment.

Distillery 38 exclusively made rye and two very different ones by mash bill. They had continuous stills and kept their other parameters remarkably consistent. Despite a brick house rye mash bill with style points for 20% malt, they claim the shortest fermentation duration in the table.

Distillery 41 had two ryes of differing mash bills as well as a bourbon and corn whiskey. They appear to have used a charge still as their doubler and the same distillation parameters across all their spirits.

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