Asked to name a spicy drink, most people might think of dark rum, a mulled wine, or perhaps even the increasingly popular chilli-infused vodka.
Rye whisky however, is far less likely to get a mention. One of Tasmania’s nascent whisky makers is looking to change this.
Peter Bignell is the owner of the Belgrove Distillery in Kempton, about 45 minutes north of Hobart. Australia’s first and only rye distillery, Belgrove grew out of Bignell producing rye for stockfeed and because it made a good windbreak.
He's now using it to create a 100 per cent rye whisky that he believes delivers just the sort of spicy notes that adventurous taste buds are looking for.
“Rye is very spicy compared with malt whisky,” explains Bignell. Rather than taking years for the flavours to develop, as they do in malt whisky, Bignell says that rye flavours are strong fairly soon after distillation.
“These drums that I store the new-make spirit in (that comes straight off the still), if you leave those around for a few days empty, they absolutely smell likes cloves and cinnamon. When all the alcohol has drifted off, the notes it leaves behind are just amazing.”
The quality of the spirit coming straight off Bignell’s still has meant that he is also producing a white rye, which does not require ageing.
In Australia whisky must be aged for a minimum of two years in an oak barrel. But Bignell’s white rye only needs to mellow for a couple of months before it can be bottled.
His initial attraction to producing white rye was largely to do with cash flow. But given the speed at which Bignell can get it out of the still and into the bottle, the whisky maker has been encouraged by some to focus on the white version of the drink.
“I had three quite well known whisky writers say, don’t waste your time putting it in a barrel, you’ll ruin it,” he says.
Nonetheless he has persisted with his rye whisky and now both it and his white rye are proving popular with bartenders throughout Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart, who are using it to create great twists on many classic cocktails.
According to Executive Style's resident cocktail expert, Simon 'Booze Hound' McGoram, the attraction of rye whisky lies both in its flavour and its provenance in the US, the birthplace of the cocktail.
“Rye was the original whisky made in the US,” says McGoram.
“Distilling in the US started with lots of Irish and Scottish immigrants wanting to use the same grain that they'd been been using in their homeland, which was mainly barley. But barley didn’t really take off well in New England so they went for the local grain that was growing quite a lot there, which was rye.”
McGoram puts rye's popularity with bartenders down to its complexity.
“If you think of rye bread, it’s spicy and almost has a bit of a tartness to it. You get the same thing with the rye whisky.”
McGoram suggests that anyone who likes a bourbon-based cocktail should give rye a try.
"You’ll end up getting, more often than not, a more flavoursome drink,” he says. “Things like Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Whisky Sours - put rye whisky in there instead [of bourbon] and you’ll end up with a delicious drink.
“If you want something a bit simple, rye whisky and some ginger beer is quite delicious and a squeeze of lime in there works quite well. My recommendation is try and get something that is at least 90 proof (or 45% ABV) or 100 proof (50% ABV). Rye whisky tends to be better at a higher proof.”
Rye vs Malt
However, the popularity of rye whisky among bartenders has not yet been matched by consumers. McGoram puts this down to a general lack of awareness of the alternative.
For Bignell this means he has had to make his rye whisky appeal to malt whisky drinkers. He's cleverly set about doing this by ageing his rye whisky in ex-malt whisky barrels that have come from other Tasmanian distilleries, including Lark, Sullivans Cove and the Old Hobart Distillery.
“There are a lot more malt whisky drinkers in Australia than American rye drinkers. So the malt whisky barrels have a bit of an influence on my rye. Hopefully, as a result, malt whisky drinkers are more likely to say ‘I can drink that.’”
After which they might also express a quiet appreciation that five years ago when Bignell was wondering what to do with a bumper crop of rye, he thought, “I know – I’ll build a whisky distillery."