Heirloom Rye Seeds American Inspiration

It started in 2010 with two sets of ten seeds, acquired from the National Seed Repository in Idaho and grown safely indoors under lab lights at Cornell University. The seeds sprouted and grew into rye. The rye produced seeds—more than ten, but not enough to plant outdoors. One of the rye strains—Prolific, ironically—proved unsuitable, but the other—Horton—flourished. The seeds were replanted, another year passed, and finally there was enough rye to plant outdoors, on a tiny four-square-foot plot on a large, mostly organic farm in the Finger Lakes owned by Rick Pedersen. This rye, too, was harvested and replanted. It takes a million seeds to plant an acre of rye, and it can take an acre of rye, give or take, to make a barrel of whiskey—not counting what’s set aside to grow even more rye the following year.

It took until 2015 before there was enough Horton rye for New York Distilling Co., which initiated the project, to even distill a test batch. By 2017, there was enough to make it into whiskey in a meaningful quantity—100 barrels or so—but none of it will be released until at least 2020, ten years after the project started. It started with less than two dozen seeds and ends with many millions, turning into bountiful harvests of a variety that hadn’t been grown commercially in decades. And finally it becomes rye whiskey, and then ages in barrels for years. Reviving Horton rye demanded the joint effort and patience of not just a distillery, but a federal seed repository, a university, and a heritage farmer.

Crafting a truly grain-to-glass heirloom whiskey demands two ingredients: a handful of seeds and a decade of time. “Whiskey humbles you,” says New York Distilling Co. co-founder Tom Potter. “It teaches you to be patient.”

Heirlooms of the Past

Until very recently, rye whiskey had been in decline for decades. Rye, as a grain, was also in decline. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American rye production by acreage peaked in 1919, when farmers harvested over 7 million acres’ worth. Since 2000, the harvest has hovered around 275,000 acres a year—compared to well over 80 million acres of corn. Around 80 percent of the almost 2 million acres of rye planted each year isn’t even harvested. Instead, most rye is grown purely as a cover crop to protect the soil. That was the case for Rick Pedersen until he started working with New York Distilling Co. for the non-heirloom field blend rye used in the company’s flagship Ragtime rye whiskey. “He had been growing rye without selling any of it for decades,” Potter says. “Rye has had a long, long decline and there wasn’t a lot of academic or practical interest in different varieties.”

Rye hasn’t been particularly valuable commercially in a long time, so farmers haven’t had incentives to grow and preserve particular varietals. Most commercial rye is commodity grain, a mix of many different strains. “That’s just a result of how grain is bought and sold in the U.S.,” says Mike Swanson, co-owner and head distiller at Far North Spirits, an estate distillery on his family’s 100 year old farm in remote northern Minnesota. “When a grain merchant buys grain, they’re buying from multiple farms, typically from a grain elevator. They’ll buy a bin, with dozens of farms in that bin. The farmers know what varieties they’re growing, but the merchants typically don’t unless they’re buying directly from a farmer.”

These test plots of rye are part of the Small Grains Project at New York’s Cornell University, which is cultivating heirloom varietals.

Moreover, heirloom rye presents a unique challenge that other heirloom crops don’t face: rye is a promiscuous grain, and cross-pollinates easily. “To accurately produce seed of [a given] variety, it must be grown in isolation, far away from other rye varieties. If it is allowed to cross with other varieties, the identity of the variety will be lost,” says Mark Sorrells, professor of plant breeding and head of the Small Grains Project at Cornell University. Even farmers who have grown and replanted the same rye for decades don’t have pure strains; instead, they’re likely to have unique field blends of many different strains that have cross-pollinated and mixed together over time. That’s why the farmers and distillers who are working with heirloom ryes have generally started from seeds of a known provenance.

To Heirloom or Not to Heirloom

Heirloom rye does not have a strict definition. “‘Heirloom’ means different things to different people,” says Sorrells, who worked with New York Distilling Co. and Pedersen to revive Horton rye. In general, the term “heirloom” refers to older varieties of rye that were traditionally grown in the 19th or early 20th century. Compared to modern strains, which have been extensively bred to emphasize desirable commercial traits, older varieties have a few distinct characteristics, most notably a lower yield. Those low yields actually can be a benefit to distillers. “The standard theory is that you suffer from lower yields, but you gain from more intense flavors, because whatever nutrients are in the soil… are concentrated in fewer, more flavorful grains,” Potter says. The same is true in wine, where older, lower-yielding vines grown in marginal climates are highly prized for the depth of flavor in the grapes they produce.

Heirloom ryes, however, have other disadvantages that make them difficult to work with. They tend to be less disease-resistant, more susceptible to insects, and vulnerable to lodging, or falling over—often reasons that contributed to these strains falling out of favor when plant breeders created more modern varietals. At Far North Spirits, Swanson is relatively skeptical of older varietals. “In my experience, sometimes there’s definitely a reason why a variety has been ‘heirloomed,’” he says. “The older varieties were more susceptible to disease and lodging, didn’t yield as well, and we haven’t found one yet that has tasted better.” Far North is several years into a study on the agronomic and sensory characteristics of more than a dozen rye strains, conducted in conjunction with the University of Minnesota. The study includes both new strains and ones that are several decades old.

For Far North’s rye whiskey, Swanson grows and distills AC Hazlet rye, a winter-hardy lodging-resistant Canadian strain introduced in 2006. Although it isn’t an heirloom strain, it is still unusual for being a pure varietal rather than a field blend, and shares many characteristics with them. The choice to grow single-strain rye, heirloom or not, is an impactful one, and a way to showcase the provenance of where that grain is grown—in Far North’s case, the family farm.

The Heirloom Flavor

It’s easy to find out what an heirloom tomato tastes like. Just eat it. Whiskey takes a little bit longer, and the unique challenges of reviving single-strain rye means that the grain isn’t as developed yet as other heirloom grains, particularly corn. That makes it hard to predict the effects on flavor for fully matured whiskey, but early results are promising. “We think that the Horton, which had been really common in the 1800s, is going to be a very flavorful, very spicy, intense rye,” Potter says. Swanson, likewise, finds the varietal but non-heirloom AC Hazlet strain quite compelling. “We see a very striking and pronounced vanilla, almost crème brûlée note, and a nice fat mouthfeel that we haven’t seen with other varieties of rye. It’s pretty unique.” Whiskey Acres Distilling Co., a DeKalb, Illinois farm distillery that also works with AC Hazlet, has had similar experiences. “It has a very particular flavor note—not only the nice spice that’s typical in rye, but a back note of vanilla that runs underneath and is really quite delicious,” says co-founder and president Jamie Walter.

Distillers of heirloom corn, like Whiskey Acres in Illinois, have paved the way for more research on rye varieties.

Whiskey distillers who use corn, on the other hand, have had a few more years’ experience using heirloom strains, and the flavor differences between strains are becoming more apparent. Released in the distillery tasting room as single-varietal bourbons, Whiskey Acres’ heirloom Oaxacan green corn, blue popcorn, and sweet corn bourbons show relatively subtle differences that are likely to become more pronounced with time—caramel and butterscotch notes in the popcorn, for instance.

Meanwhile, Ironroot Republic Distilling in Denison, Texas has experimented with heirloom corn varietals in a different way. Rather than distilling heirloom strains entirely on their own, the varietals are incorporated into a mashbill with higher-yielding, non-heirloom corn strains. The heirloom varietals still shine through and add unique flavors, even in small amounts. The distillery has worked with the dark-red Bloody Butcher, Andean purple corn grown in Minnesota, an orange flint corn called Floriani that was long popular in Italy, and many others. “The Floriani has this dark chocolate, cayenne pepper [note]… it actually has a lot of traditional Tex-Mex flavors to it, and an almost umami vibe,” says co-founder and distiller Jonathan Likarish. Using heirlooms as part of a blend helps increase yield from the fermentation process itself. “We actually predominantly use local non-GMO yellow dent corn and most of the alcohol production comes from there,” Likarish says. “We use the other grains on top of that in a very small percentage, like a spice rack.”

Rye hasn’t advanced that far along yet—few heirloom ryes have even been bottled, and the day when distillers can experiment freely with a variety of heirloom strains is still several years away, but the proliferation of heirloom corn whiskeys suggests that the future of heirloom rye will be similarly bright.

Heirloom History

There are many ways to pursue better, more complex flavors in whiskey, and heirloom rye is far from the easiest. Still, the historical resonance is compelling. Herman Mihalich, founder and distiller at Pennsylvania-based Mountain Laurel Spirits, which produces Dad’s Hat rye, is drawn to the state’s long history of rye production.

“When we were looking back at some of the history of rye [whiskey] making in Pennsylvania, we saw a lot of references to Rosen rye,” says Mihalich. Advertising for Pennsylvania ryes from the 1940s and earlier would often say that the whiskeys were made with Rosen rye. “That piqued my attention. I asked several farmers in the area and nobody seemed to remember it.” Once again, the federal seed bank saved the day: they still had seeds from the otherwise lost strain. With help from Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley University and a local farmer, Mihalich has revived the strain, and after several years did his first test distillation last summer. Mihalich has also experimented with modern hybrid varieties, and didn’t like the results. “This is our anecdotal evidence, not a scientific survey, but we found that most of these specialty hybrids have been bred to make them easy to harvest, not necessarily for any other reason. From a flavor point of view, we described it as less bright and spicy than the rye we’re using today.” The Rosen rye’s flavor profile is yet to be seen, and Mihalich admits it will be years before he has made and aged enough to sell.

For Mihalich, Rosen rye’s history and relevance to the region is as much a part of its appeal as the potential flavor advantages. Still, he doesn’t know whether his version of Rosen rye will taste like those from 70 years ago—even though he has tried several of them. “It’s hard to tell because most of the comparisons are so old—a little more oxidized and a little softer than they were years ago,” he says. But that’s not really the point. “My memory of rye goes back to when I was a teenager in the ’70s. My father and grandfather both served it and drank it at the family bar we had out in Western Pennsylvania. And their favorite rye back in those days was something called Sam Thompson. And that’s the one that’s in my mind’s eye. I taste for that memory.”

The purpose of making heirloom rye is not to re-create the exact flavor profiles rye whiskey had in days of yore. “We don’t know what rye tasted like 150 years ago, and I suspect that the quality of care that’s given to growing the rye and also to distilling is much higher now than it was then,” says Potter of New York Distilling Co. “From a practical point of view, we think that the less efficient techniques might give you a more interesting flavor. So we’re looking for something that’s different, something that’s uniquely ours, and we do love that it’s got this deep historical resonance. But will our whiskey taste like whiskey from 150 years ago? We hope it’s a lot better.”

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