Rye whisky has become increasingly popular over the past years as consumers have developed a renewed interest in full-bodied and flavourful spirits. Rye is not a whisky for the weak of heart given its powerful flavours and spicy notes.
As the interest in rye whisky soars, many spirit lovers are asking themselves the typical “rye” questions:
How is rye whisky actually made? What is the difference between American and Canadian rye? And why does rye not always contain rye?
We are trying to bring some light into the dark by answering the most common rye questions in this blog post.
“Rye” Does Not Always Contain Rye
There is often some confusion when it comes to Canadian and American rye whisky. This is because technically American rye whisky refers to any American whisky that is distilled from a fermented mash containing at least 51% rye. The other ingredients in the mash are usually corn, malted barley, and malted rye.
Canadian whisky is often labeled as “rye whisky” for historical reasons, but many of the Canadian whiskies labeled as rye whisky are produced from a fermented mash containing rye and other grains such as corn, barley and wheat.
Our own rye whisky here at Niagara Falls Craft Distillers is made with a 100% rye mash made from Canadian grain and aged twice in American oak barrels.
How Is Rye Whisky Made?
Before we start the process of making rye whisky, we of course need the rye grain. Did you know that rye is one of the grains that is typically planted in the fall to serve as a natural barrier to winter-hardy weeds? Winter rye grows during the warmer days in winter when sun temporarily brings the plant’s temperature above freezing, even while the ground is covered with snow. The rye grain is harvested in the spring and can be used to make rye flour, rye beer or rye whisky.
Even though historically, rye has mostly been grown in Eastern Europe, Canada has made it into the top ten rye growing countries since 2018.
The process of making rye whisky is virtually identical to that used to make other types of whisky.
First, the grains which are being used in the mash are milled and placed into a mash tun filled with warm water. After several hours, the mash is filtered to remove the sugar-rich layer on top, called the “wort”. The wort is then placed in a large vessel and left to cool. After, yeast is added to the wort to kick off the fermentation stage. The wort is now called wash.
For the distillation process, the wash is placed into a still and heated to just below boiling point. At this temperature, the alcohol is transformed into vapour while the water remains a liquid. The alcohol vapor is cooled and collected as a liquid.
Ageing the Rye to Perfection
The distilled spirit is then placed into a cask for aging. Canadian whisky must be aged in small wood barrels of 700 litres or less (180 US gal) for a minimum of three years – we age ours even longer. There are no specifications about the type of wood that can be used – different oak varieties such as American, Canadian, or French; charred or uncharred etc. We at Niagara Falls Craft Distillers use new charred American oak barrels and proudly let our rye age for four years.
Finally, our master distiller blends our whiskies in small batches to achieve our signature smooth character, with a backbone of rye spice. All of our spirits are proudly bottled in-house by local employees in our state-of-the-art facility right in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
We sure love our rye whisky – most of all, we love it in our Signature Serves. Next time you are up for a great sip, try our adventurous “Daredevil Rye” or “Monroe Old Fashioned” inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 blockbuster movie “Niagara”. We are sure you will love it as much as we do!