Rye Q & A.I.
Let's learn about rye! This article sheds light on some of the basics of rye grain, rye malt, rye whisky and their interesting history in Alberta. Making more products possible out of only Canadian ingredients has always been at the core of what we do. This is why we are excited to now be offering rye, both malted and unmalted. These are products that distillers have been demanding for a while, and for good reason. Rye makes incredible whisky and has a rich history in Alberta. There are lots of ways that artisan distillers can put their own signature on whisky made from this sustainable grain. However, I’m not going to be the one telling you all about that. Instead, I posed some questions to an AI-powered writing assistant and then the same questions to various rye producers in Alberta.
Who we talked to
Jacques Tremblay at Bridgeland Distillery – Jacques is a big supporter of Red Shed Malting, making high-quality products with links directly to farms has been a differentiating factor for the distillery. Their Glenbow Single Malt Whisky is Calgary’s first single malt and their Artisan Series has been a great addition to the lineup allowing the distillery to release some small batch, unique products.
Stephane Pilon’s admiration for history and art is immediately evident when you enter the Diony Distilling’s tasting room as the heads of numerous barrels include pictures burned into them showing various parts of the region’s history. Similarly, the products inside the barrels pay homage to their agricultural roots and the art of whisky making.
Scott Coburn got his start in the distilling industry at High West Distillery in Park City, Utah. This is where he learned the intricacies of the whisky production process, with a particular focus on rye whisky. He moved up to Banff to oversee production for Park Distillery in 2021, using his past experience to continue to produce high-quality products.
When I first conceived of this article, I knew I wanted Kris Sustrik to be involved, rye has been a cornerstone of Hansen Distillery. They have a 3-year and 5-year rye on the market and have some enticing finishes in their Distiller’s Series Whiskies.
Here at Red Shed, we’ve been friends and fans of Callum Mudd’s dating back to his time at the Olds College Brewmasters Program. He is the head brewer and head distiller at Blake in Canmore where he is able to bring all sorts of creations to life.
What role does rye play in the history of whisky in Alberta?
Kris Sustrik from Hansen Distillery: Rye grain is extremely resilient in terms of growth and horticultural success. In Alberta, this is important as the grain must withstand harsh winter climates, dry and hot summers, and periods of drought. The grain itself has established itself as resilient here in Alberta, which is why both Alberta distilleries and Hansen itself utilize rye grain in our spirit production. Historically, whisky was produced utilizing only wheat grain as a mash base. As moonshiners gained prevalence during prohibition and into the Great Depression, they realized that a small amount of rye grain in an all-wheat mash improved the flavour, creating a new style of whisky. Rye grain is known for imparting a spicy or fruity flavour to the whisky, which departs from the traditional flavours of an all-wheat mash bill and was primarily used as a flavouring grain. Simply called "rye" by moonshiners, this soon displaced whisky made from wheat alone - which is where Alberta Rye's naming stems from.
Hansen is proud of our moonshiner roots, dating back to the early 1900s. As homesteaders, rye was a staple grain that survived the harsh winter conditions at the Hansen homestead. Hansen's Northern Eyes whisky utilizes 100% rye as the mash bill, in part due to the incredible complexity of the grain, and the unique flavour profiles that are created as the spirit ages. As the Master Distiller at Hansen, I wanted to make a whisky that stands out from others here in Alberta. I didn't care that the mash bill was challenging to work with, from the mash tun to fermentation; I wanted to make a spirit that was a homage to our closest relatives, to our founder, Carl Hansen and his family, and as a spirit that is uniquely Albertan: outstanding and tied to our roots.
Rye whisky has a rich history in Alberta, dating back to the late 1800s. At that time, Alberta was a hub for the Canadian whisky industry, and rye was a popular grain due to its hardiness and suitability for the local climate. Many small distilleries popped up across the province, producing high-quality rye whisky that quickly gained a reputation for excellence. However, the industry was hit hard by Prohibition in the early 1900s, and most of the distilleries were forced to shut down. It wasn't until the 1990s that rye whisky began to make a comeback in Alberta, with several new distilleries taking advantage of the province's strong agricultural sector and producing rye whisky that rivals some of the best in the world.
Today, Alberta is home to a thriving rye whisky industry, with dozens of distilleries producing unique and delicious rye whiskies that showcase the province's rich agricultural heritage. Alberta's rye whiskies are known for their bold, spicy flavor profile, with notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak. Many of these whiskies are aged for several years in oak barrels, which gives them a smooth, complex character that is highly sought after by whisky enthusiasts. With its long and storied history, rye whisky has become an integral part of Alberta's cultural identity, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
What role does rye play in the history of whisky in Canada?
Stephane Pilon from Diony Distilling: In the 1800s, Canadian Whisky was made of wheat. Canadian whisky needed to offer something unique and different -rye was added with wheat and the spice it added started to get much attention and demand. Rye and whisky became synonymous. Rye grain is planted in the fall and survives the harsh Canadian winters -this is relatable to most Canadians.
Corn can mostly be used in the US for Bourbon and Barley can mostly be used in Scotland for scotch. These same countries will pair different grains or even exclude the corn or barley from their mash, however, overall, they have mastered fantastic whiskies using these grains. I believe Canada made its mark using Rye in the past. Many barrels used in Canada may be seasoned barrels which will share similar congeners. These flavours are believed to be found in much older whiskies. Rye is almost a shorter passage to traits found in older whiskies.
In the last 200 years, rye grain has seen growth and re-growth, a life through the 4 seasons, witnessing the full extent of Canada taking shape as we know it today. To my understanding, Rye can grow pretty much anywhere and can be a good option when a field is exhausted. It grows fast and needs less care and is able to do its own weed control. Back to whisky, it adds spice & tang to whisky which can stand out in a lineup of whiskies.
Rye whisky has a long and rich history in Canada, dating back to the country's early days. In fact, the first recorded distillery in Canada was established in Quebec in 1769, and rye whisky quickly became a popular spirit among Canadians. Rye whisky is made from a mash of at least 51% rye grain, which gives it a distinct spicy flavor and aroma.
During the 19th century, rye whisky production in Canada increased significantly, with many distilleries popping up across the country. The Canadian government also played a role in the growth of the industry, implementing policies that encouraged the production and export of Canadian whisky. By the early 20th century, Canadian rye whisky had become an important export, with many Americans turning to Canadian whisky during the years of Prohibition.
Today, Canadian rye whisky continues to be a beloved spirit both in Canada and around the world. Many distilleries have modernized their production methods while still maintaining the traditional rye grain mash, resulting in a diverse range of rye whiskies available to consumers. Whether enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail, Canadian rye whisky remains a staple of the country's rich cultural heritage.
Why is rye considered to be a sustainable crop?
Callum Mudd from Blake Brewhouse & Distillery: Rye is a great grain gaining popularity amongst farmers, brewers, and distillers. It can grow in harsh conditions and a number of different soil types. Rye withstands the cold and drought better than most grains which is great considering it is a fall-seeded crop. Being a fall-seeded crop, rye benefits the soil through the winter, helping protect against erosion and giving natural nutrients for the spring. Rye also creates cover and habitat for the fall migration of our feathered friends. These of course are just some of the examples of the benefits of planting rye and its sustainability. Rye also creates a great flavour and complexity in anything it gets added to and stores very well. It gives a spicy element that you can't get from other grains and when used in high percentages it creates a well-rounded whisky. For these reasons, when making our whisky, we use 100% rye.
Rye has also been moving up in the brewing world. With maltsters like Red Shed creating more malted rye varieties, the brewing industry is starting to use it more and more in beer styles that may have not traditionally used rye. Canada has always been known for its high-quality rye grain and it's great to see it get the recognition for its sustainability and flavour that it deserves.
Rye is a sustainable crop to grow because it has a deep root system that helps prevent soil erosion, requires less fertilizer and pesticides compared to other crops, and can grow in colder and harsher conditions, reducing the need for irrigation. Additionally, rye can be used for various purposes, such as food, livestock feed, and cover crops, making it a versatile and beneficial crop for farmers and the environment.
How does using malted rye benefit the production process versus only raw grain?
Scott Coburn from Park Distillery: Using rye malt in rye whisky production has many benefits. Adding a percentage of a malted grain to a rye mash will help with starch conversion. The added enzyme content in the malted grain allows for a smaller enzyme addition while still being able to convert at a lower overall temperature. This amounts to time, raw material, and energy savings during the production process. Rye malt is prefered over malted barley because it maintains the spice character of the rye and allows for the 100% rye mash bill. The flavor benefits are somewhat subjective, but rye malt generally adds some underlying richness and earthness to the final product, making for a great whisky!
Including malted rye instead of only raw rye when producing rye whisky can bring several benefits to the final product. First, malted rye contains enzymes that help to convert the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars, which are necessary for the production of alcohol. Second, malted rye adds a unique flavor and complexity to the whisky. The malting process involves germinating the rye grains and then drying them, which creates a variety of flavor compounds that are not present in raw rye. These flavors can include notes of bread, nuts, and even chocolate. Finally, using malted rye can improve the efficiency of the fermentation process and lead to a higher yield of alcohol. All of these factors contribute to the distinct character and quality of rye whisky, making it a popular choice among whisky aficionados.
What can artisan distillers do differently than large distillers to create a superior product?
Jacques Tremblay from Bridgeland Distillery: What artisan rye distillers can do is work with the specific grain batches they are getting. An important aspect is the right water temperature to mash in. There are a lot of flavour differences if you go slightly warmer/colder. Sometimes large distillers are all about maximum yields and sacrifice a bit on the flavour/spiciness of the finished product. Great artisan/craft rye already released, such as Last Straw Distillery in Ontario focus well on these parameters to extract full flavour out of the grain!
Artisan rye distillers can produce a superior product by focusing on small-batch production, using high-quality ingredients, and paying attention to every detail of the distilling process. They can also experiment with unique blends of grains and aging techniques to create a distinct flavor profile that sets them apart from larger distillers.
I hope you enjoyed the article, learned something new about rye and got to know more about some of the best rye whisky distillers in Alberta! Now go try some for yourself!