Appetites: Minnesota whiskey distillers explore new corn and rye varietals

Mike Swanson shows a sample of rye used to make whiskey.
Mike Swanson shows a sample of rye used to make whiskey. Rye varieties have different kernel size and color, but research is also finding varieties have distinctive flavors.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Seasoned wine drinkers know how different grapes lead to different flavors of wine. Merlot is smooth and jammy, while syrah is big and peppery. But does this aspect of wine apply to the grains that make whiskey?

“There are hundreds and thousands of different kinds of corn and rye out there and distillers have largely not been interested in exploring how those taste individually,” said John Garland, deputy editor of Growler Magazine.

Garland recently wrote in Growler Magazine about farmers and distillers who are researching how flavor differences in corn and rye express themselves in whiskey.

Michael Swanson, a farmer and distiller in northern Minnesota, grew 15 varieties of rye on 1-acre test plots next to each other. He told Garland he noticed they each grew differently and he hypothesized that they must taste differently, too.

“He distilled all of them in the exact same way and he noticed that these rye spirits all did taste wildly differently from one another,” Garland said.

This move toward a single-varietal, craft-whiskey focused on where and how the whisky is made might be the wave of the future in distilling.

“It’s certainly a positive step for craft whiskey,” Garland said. “This is one way that whiskey makers can opt for a little more transparency in their product, and also a way to connect us with the agricultural aspect of making whiskey, which is something that wine and cider aficionados really use to connect with their favorite bottles.”

To hear more of John Garland’s interview on All Things Considered, click on the audio player above.

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