Appetites: The rye grain comeback

Mike Swanson shows a sample of rye used to make whiskey.
A craft distillery owner shows a sample of rye used to make whiskey.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Many kinds of crops are grown in Minnesota — corn and soybeans, of course, also wheat, sugar beets, flax and oats, to name a few of the most popular. Rye is one crop that we hardly grow at all anymore, but it's starting to mount a comeback because it makes some fine young whiskey.

That's the claim of John Garland, the Deputy Editor of the Growler Magazine, whose feature in their August issue is called "A Pocket Full of Rye," and talks with MPR News host Tom Crann now about the return of rye in Minnesota.

Tell us about rye as a crop. Where is it grown? How is it used?

Rye is an annual cereal grass. It's closely related to wheat, it looks a lot like wheat. Most people probably know rye from dark breads — like German pumpernickel, or breads from Finland and Denmark.

Rye is common to those Northern countries because it's a cold-hardy crop. You seed it in the fall and it stays alive during the winters. It also grows well in poorer soils, in places that may be marginal for other grains like corn or wheat.

In Minnesota, almost all the rye being grown, and there isn't much being grown, is as a cover crop. Once you harvest corn, or early-maturing soybeans, farmers will seed rye into those fields right after. It has a deep root system that helps prevent topsoil erosion, and plowing it under in the spring keep those nutrients in the soil.

And not just known for those dark breads, you say in the article that rye was, for a long time, the standard grain in American whiskey.

Absolutely. Up until Prohibition, if you were drinking whiskey in America, chances are it was rye.

The distilling center of the country, for nearly two centuries, was the Northeastern U.S. — Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York State. These places weren't great for growing barley, like in Irish and Scotch whisky, but it's a great region for growing rye. They made so much, it was the most common brown spirit across America.

So what happened to rye during Prohibition?

It suffered a Public Relations disaster. Once we outlawed alcohol, another rye-growing capital began making lots of whiskey for us — Canada, specifically Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they still grow a tremendous amount of rye. Their distillers picked up the slack and funneled millions of dollars of rye whiskey into the U.S.

The problem was that American bootleggers didn't treat that stuff very kindly. They mixed it with cheaper blending whiskeys, neutral spirits, and artificial coloring. Americans came to think of "rye

whiskey", however unfairly, as a blanket term for nasty, bottom-shelf whiskey. After WWII, government subsidies put lots of cheap corn on the market, and American distillers shifted their focus to corn-based whiskey, that is bourbon whiskey.

So the beverage market bottomed out for rye, along with the food market — fewer people wanted dark rye bread when they could have fluffy wheat flour Wonder Bread. Rye became a relic of a grain in a very short period of time.

But you think rye is making a comeback?

I think it's beginning to. Crop scientists have new interest in evaluating rye, because it's being used more often as a cover crop. But in their research, some brand new hybrid strains of rye are showing tremendous yields, to the amount where it makes rye more viable as a cash crop.

And there's also new demand for it, because rye whiskey is making a comeback. When bartenders started to rediscover old cocktail books, they learned that all the whiskey drinks at the turn of the century, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, were calling for rye whiskey. Domestic output of rye whiskey has gone up 1000% in the last decade.

So when rye whiskey isn't being doctored by bootleggers, how does it taste? How does good rye compare to, say, bourbon or Scotch?

It's closer to Scotch and Irish whiskey than it is to bourbon. A common adjective you hear about rye whiskey is "peppery", and that's true to some extent, but good ones are still smooth and balanced.

Rye tastes very much tastes like cereal — like bran and straw. But it can also have really wonderful fruit flavors as well — apple, pear, cherry — along with that spice character that gives it some real personality. It's not a sweet mouthful of caramel like bourbon is. The good stuff, like Scotch, is distinctive.

You claim that the best whiskeys being made in Minnesota are made from rye. Why do you think this is?

One major reason is that rye whiskey tastes better at a younger age than bourbon or Scotch.

Ryes might taste really good after one or two years of aging, whereas bourbons might take 4-6, and good Scotch even longer. Our distilling industry is young, so it makes sense to me that the first class of good local whiskeys would be from rye.

But I think we're also taking rye very seriously in Minnesota. Our local distillers are either growing rye themselves, or personally networking with a farmer to grow it. You could just order cheap commodity rye from a broker, so there's care and attention at play when these distillers are selecting raw ingredients.

And also, they're working on flavor development in the grain itself. Local distillers are running trials to find the varieties of rye that produce the best flavors, something that's never really been done in the grain's history. And if they figure out which are the best-tasting strains of rye, and they plant them in better soils by farmers who care about it as a cash crop, I forsee lots of good rye whiskey on the horizon.

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