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With its distinctly peppery, spicy flavour profile, rye whisky presents a challenge to the average consumer's palate, thinks Neil Ridley, but one that a new breed of whisky consumers appears keen to explore in more detail. So, why is the UK craft distilling scene getting excited for such an innovative, yet relatively extreme, spirit?

Call it fate, or just plain old coincidence, but over the past month I seem to have been entirely swept away by a tidal wave of rye whisky. Not particularly unusual you might think, given my line of work, but bizarrely its connection has come at a time when ordinarily you'd probably find me sipping a long summer spritz cocktail in the garden, or perhaps a huge fishbowl-sized glass of gin and tonic.  

For all its finer points, rye is not - and I'm here to be debated with - a decidedly summery drink.

Its bold, almost medicinal, dark, savoury, spice-laden character can perhaps be compared with a moderately smoky whisky; itself not something that one would consider the obvious choice to pair with sun-soaked summer holidays. Yet there, on my tasting desk, lay six bottles of recently-launched European rye whiskies, each one distinctly autumnal and staring back at me with an almost playful 'dare you open me?' disposition about them. 

A recent trip to the east coast of England proved to be the final straw. Surely, the sleepy English seaside town of Southwold would provide an escape from such firey and warming temptation?

Oh no.

Earlier this month, Southwold-based Adnams, the well-known UK brewer - and now successful distiller - scooped a major prize at the prestigious IWSC awards with its newly-released rye malt, gaining a 'Gold Outstanding' and a lofty 98 out of 100 points from the judging panel. It seems, then, that UK rye whisky is very much here to stay. 

Of course, the segment's position in the overall world of whisk(e)y is nothing new, with the US sector flush with straight rye whiskeys (where the mashbill, or grain content, contains a recipe of a minimum of 51% rye) released in recent years. We've had expressions from the likes of Brown Forman's Jack Daniel's, Diageo's Bulleit, Campari's Wild Turkey, Sazerac and a host of smaller, more niche brands such as Whistle Pig and FEW. But, European rye whiskies have yet to really hit their stride, despite a loyal following from whisky connoisseurs.

This could be about to change. Given the growing curiosity of a younger generation, the inherent savoury, almost bitter herbal notes found in rye coupled with a move away from sweeter flavours, could really start to shake up the whisky category.

Our European cousins certainly know a few things about making rye-based spirits and this appears to have had a knock-on effect with a number of UK-based craft distillers. Finland's Kyrö distillery uses rye exclusively as the base for all its spirits (including aged and un-aged gin, plus a youthful but highly complex rye malt whisky, which also scooped a gold medal at the IWSC awards). Over in Denmark, Stauning recently completed its distillery expansion - backed by 2015's US$15m investment by Diageo through Distill Ventures. The facility has increased the whisky producer's s mostly rye-based capacity 50-fold.

In addition, more traditional European-based distillers such as Holland's Zuidam, known locally for its range of aged genever (think, missing link between gin and a malty, spicy young whisky spirit) are already making waves with 100% rye-based whiskies. In fact, as I wrote a few months ago, it is these kinds of challenging whiskies that are potentially on the cusp of entering the mainstream. Earlier this year, Zuidam secured a tie-up with BrewDog's distilling arm, where a shot of its Torpedoed Tulip - a 46% abv single rye whisky - is paired with the craft brewer's hugely successful Dead Pony Club IPA.

What of the UK-based rye whiskies? Next to Adnams, releases from East London Liquor Co, The London Distillery Co and The English Whisky Co have all hit the shelves in the past 12 months. Thanks to their higher price points and extremely small batches, the common aim is the more-premium-yet-curious consumer.

The real area of potential growth, however, has to be in Scotland where, to date, just one rye whisky exists commercially, a three-year-old spirit produced by the innovative Arbikie distillery in Arbroath. Its price point of around GBP225 means it is out of reach to most consumers. But, the expression, the first Scottish rye in over 100 years, has piqued the curiosity of a few distillers, including the previously-mentioned BrewDog, where head distiller Steven Kersley is currently experimenting with rye-based distillates, as well as microdistillery Inchdairnie, which is currently maturing an as-yet-unscheduled rye whisky.

Part of the reason for the lack of a mainstream Scottish rye comes from the fact that it's notoriously difficult to distil in traditional pot stills, with the high concentration of sticky protein enzymes found in the rye grain creating a thick, gloopy mash and a wash that can burn within the stills. Given the recent successes of the likes of Adnams, whose rye is priced competitively against other entry-level single malts at the sub-GBP40 mark, are we about to see a more concerted effort from the big boys to finally get around the technical challenges of producing a consistent and more readily available - and affordable - rye whisky of the future?

The road may be paved with potential challenges, but at least its heading in a 'rye-volutionary' direction.


Sectors: Spirits

Companies: Campari, Diageo, Sazerac Co

Expert Analysis

Key Trends in Alcoholic Beverages: Powerful changes shaping the wine, beer, spirits and alcohol-free beverages industry

Key Trends in Alcoholic Beverages: Powerful changes shaping the wine, beer, spirits and alcohol-free beverages industry

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