Saturday, February 26, 2022

What Is Next for Rye Whiskey?


Opened in 2017, the Sagamore Spirit Distillery is in Baltimore's Port Covington neighborhood. It is the largest distillery in the U.S. that makes only rye whiskey.

It is perhaps symbolic of our era that the most faithful recreation of Maryland-style rye whiskey is made in Colorado and the largest rye whiskey distillery in Maryland uses recipes developed in Southern Indiana. 

Rye whiskey is where the action is.

Leopold Brothers is the Colorado distillery making rye whiskey in a three-chamber still, a type that was widely used in Maryland and Pennsylvania to make very flavorful rye whiskey a century ago. Bottled after four years in wood, it is available on its own or in a blend with column-distilled rye made at Cascade Hollow (formerly George Dickel) in Tennessee. 

Though inspired by Maryland distilling practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Leopolds don't call their product Maryland rye. The product formerly known as Leopold Brothers Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey is no longer in the company’s portfolio. The new product is called Leopold Brothers Three Chamber Rye Whiskey. The Dickel product is called Collaboration Blend.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Sagamore Spirit released its first Maryland-distilled, bottled-in-bond straight rye whiskey in November. Sagamore is Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's whiskey company. Their Baltimore distillery is the largest in the East and makes only rye whiskey, but it has been making it only since 2017, hence a 4-year-old eligible for bottled-in-bond debuted in 2021.

Sagamore Rye is a combination of two rye whiskeys. One is the famous MGP 95-percent rye. The other is a 51-percent rye buffered with corn that MGP has made since 2013. How the two are blended is Sagamore’s contribution. Except for this new release, the Sagamore in stores now is whiskey made by MGP in Southern Indiana, but since 2017 Sagamore has made great quantities of both recipes at its distillery in Baltimore’s Port Covington neighborhood. Made-in-Maryland Sagamore Rye should be widely available soon.

Other Maryland outfits make rye whiskey, such as Gray Wolf in Saint Michaels.

Maryland rye may be about to embark on the journey Tennessee whiskey took a few years back. Is ‘Maryland rye’ simply any rye whiskey made in Maryland? Or is it a distinctive style? And if ‘Maryland rye’ is a distinctive style, what are the characteristics of that style? Can ‘Maryland-style rye’ be made in Colorado? Or Indiana? 

The answer to these questions is, only time will tell. Ultimately, whiskey consumers will decide whether or not Maryland rye is a thing. 

Meanwhile, distillers, still makers, and farmers have only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is possible with rye whiskey, and not just in Maryland. New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia all once had robust, homegrown rye whiskey industries and could again.

Why mention farmers? Because today, almost all of the rye grown in the United States is never harvested. It is planted as a cover crop. Most of the rye sold to U.S. distilleries is grown in Canada or Northern Europe. Only Minnesota grows enough high-quality rye to supply major U.S. producers.

Hallock, Minnesota is a hard goal shot from the Canadian border. There, in the Red River Valley, on a farm tilled by the Swanson family for more than a century, Minnesota rye is grown and distilled into whiskey at the aptly-named Far North Distillery. For their Roknar 100% Rye they had a nearby maltster malt some of it for them. A nearby cooperage made the barrels from Minnesota oak. It is a tiny release most of us will never taste, but we can enjoy the idea of it and hope for more like it.

More than one distiller, researching how rye whiskey used to be made, has come across mention of Rosen Rye, a variety developed about a century ago at what is now Michigan State University. Rosen is supposed to be great for making very flavorful rye whiskey. Too bad no one grows it. The only seeds are in seed banks. It takes time to turn a handful of seed bank seeds into a crop, then more years to turn those plump, juicy kernels into whiskey. Then more years to figure out the ideal way to age the resulting distillate, which if the Leopold Brothers Three Chamber Rye is any indication, will taste very different from most of the rye whiskey made today. 

But a few hardy souls are trying to get more flavorful rye varieties into the ground and then into a bottle. The Delaware Valley Fields Foundation (DVFF) has a mission to support small farmers in the countryside around Philadelphia. They work with the United States Department of Agriculture Research Service, universities, and farmers to resurrect ‘lost’ grains such as Rosen. 

Dancing Star Farms in Imler, Pennsylvania has grown Rosen for the DVFF for several years. Stoll & Wolfe in Lititz distilled some of Dancing Star's grain. Their recently released Straight Keystone Rosen Rye Whiskey is only two years old and not widely available but is a harbinger of things to come. George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon got some of Dancing Star's Rosen crop and made whiskey from it in December. An unaged version will be released this year, the rest when it’s ready.

Dancing Star planted 45 acres of Rosen for the DVFF in the fall of 2021. The DVFF has another 50 acres on other farms in the region.

Rosen is unusual because it needs to be grown in isolation. In Michigan, Ari Sussman of Mammoth Distilling is working with Michigan State University and the National Park Service to farm Rosen on a Park Service island in Lake Michigan, the same island that produced pure Rosen seed for farmers in the grain's heyday.

Rosen is just one variety. Abruzzi, which is grown for the Leopolds in Colorado, is another. There are more. Maybe some good heirloom varieties are waiting to be discovered, or new hybrids can be developed. Grains are usually developed for yield, which for alcohol means more starch. Is flavor-for-alcohol a good trade-off? Again, only time will tell.

Kids, this is where the action is, and it is going to be good.

Friday, February 18, 2022

A Mansfield Roller Coaster Would Have Changed My Life


The figure-8 roller coaster at Luna Park, Mansfield, Ohio (c. 1915).
I enjoy history and especially the history of places I've visited or lived. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, a small city midway between Cleveland and Columbus. It's a place like any other, and therefore unique, but special to me. Regular visitors to this space know all this. An example of past Mansfield musings is here.

Mansfield has a nice system of four connected parks on its west side. I spent much of my youth up to something in one or the other of them. Maple Lake Park was the closest, followed by South Park, Middle Park, and North Lake Park. There was a lake at Maple Lake Park once, but by my era it was a ball field, some tennis courts, and a playground. 

North Lake Park still has its lake. We ice-skated there in winter. It was the most developed of the four parks. It had a roller rink and swimming pool. 

Sometimes when I learn about Mansfield's history, I fantasize about living there in an earlier time, before I was born. More than anything, I want to ride the electric streetcar out Fourth Street to Luna Park, which is what North Lake Park was called in its glory days. (Click here for an excellent 13-minute video about it.

I am gobsmacked that, once upon a time, North Lake Park had a roller coaster. 

While the electric streetcar would have been nice, I didn't need it. One of the best things about growing up in Mansfield is that the city is so small, just about everything is accessible to a kid on a bicycle. I could and did ride my bike everywhere. I certainly rode it to North Lake Park. If I could have ridden my bike to a roller coaster at North Lake Park, every day if I wanted to, I believe that would have changed my life.

I like roller coasters. I am not one of those people who spend every holiday visiting amusement parks to ride as many different roller coasters as possible. I don't have a roller coaster scrapbook or anything like that. But I do like roller coasters.

As an adult, just about everywhere I've lived or traveled in the world, if there was a roller coaster there, I probably rode it. 

Growing up, we went to several different amusement parks in and around Cleveland: Chippewa Lake, Euclid Beach, Meyer’s Lake. They all had coasters. Only one, Cedar Point in Sandusky, is still in business. All of them were about an hour away, so going there was a special event, a family outing. We might hit two or three a year. 

So the prospect of growing up with a roller coaster in town, a mere bike ride away, blows my mind. When I found out my parents had owned a boat before I was born, that hurt. This cuts even deeper. 

I can picture it, riding my bike through the four connected parks. Even though that wasn't the quickest route, it was the most fun. I would buy a ticket, or maybe a whole string. I might just ride once, or all afternoon, depending on my mood and what else I had to do. I could go with friends or by myself. A roller coaster could have been part of my everyday life through junior high and high school if only I had lived a couple generations sooner.

I imagine a daily roller coaster ride as a tonic, a pick-me-up. I could do it on the way home from school. Not exactly on the way, but I could make it work. Maybe get the whole family to go after church on Sunday. It's healthier than ice cream. I imagine mom, when she got fed up with me for some reason, saying, "go ride your roller coaster." And I would.

I had a happy childhood. I have no complaints. But when I imagine everything exactly the same, plus a roller coaster ride a couple times a week, I can't help thinking that would have been so much better.

On the other hand, I know how these things work. If I had had an easily-accessible roller coaster I would have taken it for granted, probably, just like I did all of the wonderful things I did have growing up. 

But a Mansfield roller coaster sure would have been nice.

Friday, February 11, 2022

After 10,000 Years, Rye Is Having Its Moment

Göbekli Tepe is a Neolithic archaeological site near the city of Şanlıurfa in Southeastern Turkey.
Humans began to collect and eat rye seeds about 10,000 years ago. The people who built Göbekli Tepe, the oldest known monumental structure on earth, may have been familiar with rye, in either its wild or earliest cultivated form.

Yet although rye has been around all that time, it is never the first choice for any important application. Wheat is better for bread and barley is better for beer. Because rye will grow where those do not, and livestock like it well enough, rye is always in the mix.

After 10,000 years, humans finally have figured out that the highest and best use for rye is rye whiskey.

Corn, what some call maize, is the world’s go-to cereal for distilling. Corn and rye have very different properties. Corn kernels are huge and yield a lot of fermentable material. Rye yields less alcohol even on a per-bushel basis and costs about twice as much. 

For drinkers, the big difference is taste. Corn distillate has very little flavor. Most bourbons are more than 75 percent corn so most of their flavor comes from the charred oak barrel. What little taste they get from the mash comes from small grains: rye, wheat, and barley. Rye is the most used of these 'flavor grains' because it is the most flavorful, too flavorful for some palates. That's why many popular bourbons and both major Tennessee whiskeys use so little of it.

Yet even though Jack and George don't like too much rye in their Tennessee whiskey, both like it in their stills just fine. Both Jack Daniel's and George Dickel now make rye whiskey too. 

Rye whiskey very nearly died out. Thirty years ago, only three distilleries in the United States (all in Kentucky) regularly made rye whiskey, and made it only one or two days per season. Today, just about everybody with a still makes rye whiskey.

The rye grain sold for distillation today is rarely a single variety. Most of it is grown in Northern Europe or Canada. Minnesota is the only major U.S. supplier. 

Today, rye is planted primarily for soil improvement, grazing, or both. In Pennsylvania, for example, only about 18 percent of the rye planted each year is harvested. Most of that is used for the next year's cover planting. The rest is fed to livestock.

All of that means little of the rye planted in the United States is cultivated for its flavor characteristics. That potential is virtually untapped. So while the growing and distilling of heirloom maize varieties is interesting, doing the same thing with rye is potentially spectacular. 

Rosen, a hybrid developed a century ago at what is now Michigan State, was once highly regarded for whiskey. It grew in Michigan and elsewhere for most of the 20th century, until the late 1970s. Efforts are underway to revive it, but that takes time. 

The northern parts of Pennsylvania and New York once grew a lot of rye for whiskey and could again. If there is a market, the farmers will figure it out.

In Colorado, Todd Leopold found a local farmer who would grow Abruzzi rye for him. Leopold chose Abruzzi because it contains higher-than-normal levels of certain substances he believes are good for rye whiskey. Then he discovered and had built a special type of still that transfers those flavors from the mash to the spirit. The resulting whiskey is wonderful, a revelation. 

Many distillers would like to work with these super-flavorful rye varieties, but would prefer to get them from Brooks or some other broker. The grain dealers aren't there yet but they're working on it. 

This is just the beginning. With rye grain varieties cultivated for whiskey, stills and other equipment built to accentuate rye's characteristics, and a community of creative distillers and adventurous consumers, the possibilities for rye whiskey are limitless. 

It is, potentially, another agricultural revolution, 10,000 years in the making, at least as regards the agriculture of whiskey. 

Friday, February 4, 2022

Whiskey History and Why It Matters


Keebler CEO Ernie Keebler, flinging fudge in front of his cookie factory.
June, 2022, will mark the 30th anniversary of the premiere of "Made and Bottled in Kentucky," the documentary about bourbon that I made for KET (Kentucky's public television system) to celebrate the bicentennial of Kentucky statehood. KET still shows it from time to time.

It effectively marks how long I have been writing about bourbon. From the beginning, my primary interest has been history, the history of American whiskey and that history's many intersections with American history. When I have been in conflict with producers, that's usually why. The temptation to corrupt history for profits seems irresistible. 

In 2007, Diageo rolled out some new marketing for George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. They had invented a fanciful tale about George Dickel and his new bride, Augusta, visiting Coffee County in 1867, where George dreamed about "creating the finest, smoothest sippin’ whisky," and then started a business there in 1870. It was full of other ridiculous and unsupported claims. 

Does is matter? I think it does. Here is why. 

The Keebler Elves were created in 1968 by the Chicago-based advertising agency, Leo Burnett Co. One of Leo's hallmarks was his use of mascots; fictional and, usually, illustrated characters who personified a brand's advertising proposition. A half-century later, Ernie and crew are still making cookies in the hollow tree.

The difference between Ernie Keebler and George Dickel is that George Dickel was a real person. So was Augusta Banzer Dickel, who had a younger sister, named Emma, who married George Dickel's business partner, Victor Shwab. All real people. No one is expected to believe that Ernie Keebler is CEO of a cookie company whose factory is in a hollow tree and no one does. But when the makers of a brand make historical claims about real people, we're expected to believe them, aren't we?

Not only were those people real, with real histories, but the things they did matter. The history of commercial enterprises may not be as significant as the history of governments, but they are part of the overall story of how we developed as a nation and people. The history of America's beverage alcohol industries may be more important than most because they contributed so much to the nation's development. Beverage alcohol is the only industry that has prompted two constitutional amendments. 

When Diageo treats important historical figures such as the Dickels and Shwabs as if they are cartoon elves, they do a disservice to the product and the industry. (They have cleaned up their act somewhat since. The newlyweds and their carriage ride are gone.)

The practice of playing fast and loose with whiskey history is not unique to Diageo. Far from it. Virtually every company that sells American whiskey is guilty of at least some fudging. Many of the things Brown-Forman says about Jack Daniel's are unproven and probably unprovable. They call them "Legends and Lore" to give themselves an out. Jim Beam has no evidence that, as they often claim, "Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of whiskey in Kentucky in 1795."  

Heaven Hill falsely claims that Elijah Craig invented bourbon and that Evan Williams was Kentucky's first distiller. Sazerac falsely claims that William Weller invented wheated bourbon. Diageo falsely claims that the Bulleit Bourbon recipe originated with Augustus Bulleit in the 19th century. The people are all real, the claims are all false.

I can't complain too much because all this misrepresentation gives me something to do. If you want the real history of American whiskey, you pretty much have to get it from people like me, because you can't trust the producers.

(I recommend Bourbon, Strange. Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, where you will find a 36-page chapter entitled "George Dickel and the Trouble with Diageo," followed by a 19-page chapter entitled "Fact and Fiction in Bourbon History." If you like that sort of thing.)