Rye whiskey: everything you need to know the great American distillate
Many of you will wonder what rye whiskey is and why one should buy a bottle of this American spirit.
The answer is easy: Rye whiskey is the most interesting spirit of the moment, the one that is experiencing a second youth and breaking away from the old stereotype of rough whiskey suitable only for the pioneers of the Old West.
First of all, let’s define rye: it is a brandy produced from the distillation of a mash that must contain at least 51% rye and age in charred American oak barrels. Because rye means simple rye, one of the most popular cereals in the southern United States is rye, especially in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where they have been producing rye whiskey since the 1600s. The process is absolutely identical to that of Bourbon, so let’s summarize: milling, mashing, sour mash, fermentation, double distillation, maturation, and bottling.
How is Rye whiskey made?
The rye is ground until it is ground into a powder, to which flour and spring water are added and cooked at high temperatures, no more than 78 degrees. Other grains are then added, such as wheat and malt, cooked at a lower temperature, 65 degrees, to add a nice variety of flavors. Note that there are a few distilleries—six throughout the United States—that make a rye-only mash bill.
Before starting with fermentation, the mash is enriched with sour mash that was left over from a previous distillation. Only in liquid form, but this is critical because it contains lactic bacteria and is useful for lowering the pH of the compound and thus stimulating fermentation. The sour mash is cooked; other yeasts are injected and then added to the mash, and fermentation can begin.
Fermentation is triggered through the inoculation of selected yeasts, and so we finally have the wort, the alcoholic beer. Remember that during fermentation, the yeasts consume sugar to produce alcohol, but at the same time, bacteria are formed that can transmit particular and unique flavors to the beer. It all depends on the type of yeast used, the temperatures at which fermentation takes place, and how long the fermentation lasts. All variables are carefully studied by each distillery.
The first distillation of the Rye
All you need to do is distill the wort using a column still to extract the ethanol from this beer, which has a maximum alcohol content of 8 degrees, and thus obtain the low wine. The first distillation product typically has an alcohol content of 60 degrees.
The second distillation of Rye whiskey occurs in a pot still, which is a discontinuous alembic still. The first distillation is less delicate and you need to extract most of the alcohol, while it is in the second that you decide the face, flavors, and aromas that the final distillate will have.
Heads and tails: how much does the distiller have to cut?
The dilemma is always what to choose and how much to put in the distillate. Heads and tails are discarded, but there is no right moment that is always the same; it all depends on the heat and the distillation process. Let us remember that fire heats a boiler from which fumes rise; there are no tutorials or light signals.
It is the master distiller who chooses what to keep and what to discard in the heads and tails, even if it is true that the waste is added to the new distillation to come. They are waste substances that are heavy, unpleasant, or too pungent, such as acetone and methanol, but there are also essential esters for the scents of whiskey.
If the master distiller cuts too much, the distillate will be thin and elegant, but there will be less. On the other hand, if you throw away less, the distillate will be heavier and more oily, but there will be more of it. Finding the right balance and maintaining constant product quality is not easy at all.
But let’s go on. The vapors of the second distillation rise in a coil, which is cooled with water, and so they turn back into liquid, our beloved rye brandy!
But it’s not ready yet. It has to age in wood, in new American oak barrels that are burned with open flames. This is the great peculiarity of American whiskey: refinement. It is thought to have been invented by the Reverend Elijah Wood, whose barn full of barrels burned down but who bravely tried to refine his whiskey in these burnt barrels, and the result was… historic! So much so that the legend of the mythical reverend persists to this day. And there is also a distillery that still bears his name.
There are no rules regarding the length of refinement, but Straight Rye whiskey must be aged for two years in a cask. You usually get 4 years of refinement for the Straight, because if you stay less than that, you have to specify the months, and it is certainly not a boast to say that you have not completed the entire 4-year cycle.
The whiskey is extracted from the barrels; any residues are filtered, but remember that the infamous chill-filtering is prohibited, another great point in favor of this product. Rye is put into bottles after the barrels are put together and the alcohol level is adjusted by adding water.
What does Rye whiskey taste like?
It is an austere, spicy distillate, with rough and angular fruit and spicy features, never shy. Indeed, he is ready to attack you with whips of cocoa and mint. Wood and intense fruity flavors, sandalwood, cedar, olives, and even bitter and tannic tones that do not hold back. On the palate, it is more severe, woody, smoky, arid, and herbaceous than Bourbon, which instead lets itself go to softer and more sumptuous tones.
The alcohol content of Rye whiskey
From 40 degrees to 50 to 52 degrees, you can easily get to beautifully pumped cask-strength whiskey.
What are the differences between Rye whiskey and Bourbon?
Although the production process of the two American whiskeys is identical, there are two abysmal differences. The first is the raw material: the rye is made from 51% rye and sometimes even 100%, and the Bourbon is made with 51% corn. And this makes a huge difference in the taste of the two spirits. The spiciness, caramel, and spicy notes are similar, but the Bourbon is much sweeter, slyer, and velvetier, and the fruit is caramelized and cooked; it tastes of butter, popcorn, honey, and baked apples, whereas the Rye is sharper and spicy, and the fruit is green. Everything about the production method, the aging in burnt American oak barrels, and everything else is the same; however, they are two worlds that are diametrically opposed.