Saturday, April 27, 2019

Chris Middleton Has Some Obscure but Interesting Facts About Rye

I heard from our friend Chris Middleton today. He enjoyed my article about rye in the current issue of Whisky Advocate. (Great magazine, but I wish they would spell 'whiskey' correctly.) Mr. Middleton, formerly of Jack Daniel's, is principal and director of Australia's Whisky Academy. He is a treasure trove of information, as his note below reveals.

I enjoyed your article on rye, probing this grain deeper than most writers care to venture. I was intrigued to read one of your interviewees discussing the Rosen rye being popular in Pennsylvania a hundred years ago. The progenitor of this rye cultivar was brought from Russia by J. A. Rosen, a Russian student at the Michigan Agricultural College (which is now Michigan State). The Michigan Agricultural Experimental Station started cultivating Rosen in 1909 and began distributing it in Michigan in 1912. The first farmer (in Albion, MI) to plant it was Carleton Horton, namesake of Horton rye.

Until the end of the 19th century, rye did not command research attention. Corn did, but that’s a digression. My records have circa 1844 mentioning the Patent Office of Agriculture and the rye cultivar, Multicole. Interestingly, this variety originated in Poland, through France to England and into America when someone tried to commercialise it under US patent. I suspect it was rejected, with the first genetic patent going to Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist in Chicago for his koji patent in 1891, when he coincidently registered his ‘disruptive’ new whiskey-making process.

The popular American winter ryes were imported varieties: Common (probably originally from the UK or Western Europe), St John’s Day (Italy), Siberian (German), as well as the Spring and Southern (seems this variety climatised to warmer US regions, KY/TN). As no one was taking much interest in reporting variations in cereal genetics back then, other varieties and races may have escaped the net, i.e. Baltic-derived varieties of early 19th century Europe including Norwegian, Wallachian, Archangel, Johannis, etc.

In 1850, Pennsylvania was the largest producer of rye (4.8 million bushels, or 34% of national output), followed by NY (4.2m) and MA (0.5m). Rye was about to be toppled as America’s leading whiskey style coming into the War Between the States.

Years ago I started researching a book on rye … hence all these ready and esoteric records.

NOTE: Thanks to Ari Sussman, of the Ann Arbor Distilling Company, for sharing this little gem about the rye farmers of Michigan's South Manitou Island, published in the early 1930s.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting info, thank you! I was "interested" in rye whiskey ever since I tried Jim Beam Rye (and hated it) about 10 or 12 years ago. I wasn't into sipping spirits back then but I'd seen an article in a flight magazine about the robust hearty aspects of rye and how it's resurgent AND being of eastern european extraction I LOVE rye bread, so I WANTED to like rye whiskey :) But I just bought whatever was cheap and available at the time and I really wasn't ready for it then :)

All these years later I am a whiskey hobbyist/geek and certainly with a soft spot for all things rye whiskey (and bread!).

P.S. growing up in Russia we had a natural soft drink made from malted rye - "kvas" (sometimes spelled "kvass" in latin letters). At home people made it from stale rye bread (which had malted rye in the recipe) but I doubt the commercial producers used that method. The industrial version was still naturally made (likely sometimes diluted and adulterated by retail staff) and sold from a mobile "tap" or from little specialized "KBAC" kiosks made only for this purpose (draft beer was also sold in similar fashion, people just brought their own containers).

It is basically a type of rye beer but too low-abv (probably below 1%) to be considered an alcoholic drink. It is incredibly delicious and refreshing and that flavor of malted rye is haunting. I get it a little in Lot No. 40 rye.

Also, I'd read that vodka in Russia was historically made from malted barley and rye and that makes sense - wheat is more "premium" AND you needed a way to convert the starches before the column still was invented.