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 is breaking away from the old stereotype of rough whiskey suitable just 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, 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, flour to which spring water is 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, 6 throughout the United States, that make a rye-only mash bill.
Before starting with fermentation, the mash is enriched with sour mash, which is left over from a previous distillation. Liquid only, but that is very important because it is rich in lactic bacteria and 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 of 8 degrees and thus obtain the low wine. Usually, the product of the first distillation has an alcohol content of 60 degrees.
The second distillation of Rye whiskey takes place in a pot still, 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 that of what to choose, how much to put in the distillate. Heads and tails are discarded, but there is no right moment 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, heavy, unpleasant, or too pungent, such as acetone, 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 contrary, if you discard less, the distillate will be more oily and heavier, but the quantity will be greater. 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 which 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 even today this legend about the mythical reverend circulates. And there is also a distillery that still bears his name.
There are no rules regarding the duration of refinement, but to be called Straight Rye whiskey it must refine for 2 years in cask. Usually, you get even 4 years of refinement for the Straight, since if you stay less you have to specify the months and it is certainly not a boast to say that you have not done the complete 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. The barrels are assembled, the alcohol content is adjusted by adding water, and then rye is bottled.
What does Rye whiskey taste like?
It is an austere, spicy distillate, with rough and angular fruit, 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 severe, woody, smoky, arider, and herbaceous than Bourbon, which instead lets itself go to softer and more sumptuous tones.
The alcohol content of Rye whiskey
From as low as 40 degrees, you can easily get to beautifully pumped cask strength whiskey boasting 50-52 degrees.
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%, the Bourbon is made with 51% corn. And this makes a huge difference in the taste of the two spirits. The spiciness, the caramel, the spicy notes are similar, but the Bourbon is much sweeter, sly, velvety and also the fruit is caramelized and cooked, tastes of butter, popcorn and honey, baked apples, while the Rye tends more towards a sharp and spicy flavor and the fruit is green. The production method, the aging in burnt American oak barrels, and everything else are identical, however, they are two worlds practically the opposite.