Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thirst Boston 2014: Rye-sing Tide

"It doesn't get any more American than Rye."
--Dave Pickerell

In 1964, Congress passed a resolution, stating bourbon was a "distinctive product of the U.S." granting the term legal protection. This is akin to the protection granted to wine terms like Champagne, Sherry and Port. Thus, bourbon can only be legally produced in the U.S. However, rye has never received such a distinction and Dave feels that's unfortunate as he believes rye is at the backbone of American history.

I attended the Thirst Boston seminar, Rye-sing Tide: A Look at Rye Whiskey from Pre-Prohibition to the Present, which was led by Master Distiller, Dave Pickerell, who I recently met at Hillrock Estate Distillery in the Hudson Valley. Dave previously spent 14 years working at Maker's Mark. He now runs Oak View Consulting, assisting a number of other distilleries, such as Whistle Pig (the sponsor of this seminar) and George Washington's Distillery. He is nationally recognized as a whiskey expert, and his services are sought out by many distilleries. He apparently even has whiskey in his blood, as his great grandmother’s uncle was Colonel E.H. Taylor, said by many to be the father of the bourbon industry.

It is clear that Dave is a history geek, as you could see his joy and passion as he presented a history of rye production, leading up to the current resurgence of rye. He wove a compelling tale of rye, placing a more unique spin on its history. He also discussed the creation of WhistlePig, and some of his future plans. Dave is an engaging speaker, and this was an informative and fun seminar, with the addition of a couple tasty cocktails and a drink of WhistlePig Rye neat.

The seminar began with a video playing "America The Beautiful," to set forth the idea that rye is America's historic and patriotic spirit. Dave feels that the phrase, "For amber waves of grain," in that song may refer to fields of rye. The historic import of rye became more evident as we started our history lesson with the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The chests of tea that were tossed into the harbor were symbolic of Americans tossing away the entire British way of life, a rejection in many different ways, including some which you might never have guessed.

For example, horse races in Britain are run in a clockwise manner, so Americans chose to have their horse races, including the Kentucky Derby, do the opposite and run in a counterclockwise manner. As for our main topic, up until the time of the Tea Party, rum had been the primary colonial drink but that was rejected and rye took over as the most important spirit. The colonial army was provided whiskey rations, 4 ounces each day, and they drank rye, though the rations would be cut in half in 1790.

That reduction didn't last long as in 1794, the rations were doubled for anyone involved in combat, a response to the Whiskey Rebellion. This revolt was only tangentially about taxes, and was more about how those taxes were to be paid. In the East, people generally paid the taxes but it was people in the West who had issue, and it was something beyond much of their control. They were used to bartering for what they needed and often had little or no cash, but the government would only accept cash for payment of the taxes. They wouldn't accept barter for the tax, and if you didn't pay, you would be hauled to court in Harrisburg. This was a terrible dilemma for many in the West.

President George Washington assembled a large army, bigger than any that had even existed during the Revolutionary War, to put down the rebellion. This was the only time a sitting President has personally led an army into combat. A significant number of the rebels fled south, down the Ohio River into Kentucky, and I'll discuss the ramifications of that migration shortly.

In 1797, James Anderson, the plantation manager for George Washington, suggested that he should build a distillery and Washington authorized him to construct one, to produce a Maryland-style rye whiskey. Stills were considered a common item of farming equipment, used by many farmers to help balance out their farming activities, such as dealing with excess grain. Washington's distillery was so successful that it provided about 50% of the outside income to the plantation, despite the fact he didn't ship his rye further south than Richmond and further north than Alexandria.

When Washington died in 1799, the distillery was producing about 11,000 gallons of rye.  You'll find many sources stating that Washington had the largest distillery in America during that time, though the proof is not actually definitive. There were thousands of stills across the country, and their production levels are not always known. So far though, research seems to support that Washington's distillery was the largest in the country, but research is ongoing.  

Returning to the people who fled south after the Whiskey Rebellion, many settled in Kentucky, finding little, or no, distilleries there. However, they found much excess corn, an opportunity to make whiskey with a different grain. By 1810, there were 2200 distilleries in Kentucky, a huge boom in about 16 years. Unfortunately for rye, this was the start of bourbon taking its dominance over rye, especially as it was much easier for Kentucky to ship bourbon west rather than the rye makers in the East.

The previous whiskey rations for the military ended in 1832, though they would be reinstated in 1846 for the Mexican-American War, and would then last until the end of the Civil War, when they would vanish forever. During the Civil War, there were few battles held on Kentucky soil, but there were many troop movements through its territory, many that seemed to coincide with the location of distilleries, so that soldiers could obtain their rations, bourbon not rye.

Jump ahead to the start of Prohibition in 1920, and forget your conventional thoughts about what it entailed. Dave stated that Prohibition actually guaranteed your right to consume alcohol, if you possessed a prescription from your doctor. And there were many "ill" people who possessed such prescriptions. The government collected stores of alcohol, placing them into one of seven locations, as a precaution against theft. A medical organization was created to disseminate the alcohol, and the government soon realized that the supply, including much aged spirits, was decreasing, and that there might now be enough to service all the prescriptions. To increase the supply, they created a Distillation Holiday that permitted certain distilleries to produce more alcohol to meet the demand.

During Prohibition, whiskey from Canada and Scotland still found its way, albeit illegally, into the U.S., and Americans began acquiring a taste for lighter, blended whiskey. What was truly lethal to U.S. distilleries was not Prohibition itself but was actually the Repeal of Prohibition on December 5,1933. That seems counter-intuitive, that making alcohol production legal again would hurt U.S.distilleries, but there is logic behind it.

There was little advance notice of Repeal, due in large part to a group of people with economic interests in Canadian and Scotch whiskey. This group wanted a sudden Repeal, something to surprise U.S. distilleries, as this group was already set to capitalize on the legality. U.S. distilleries, who lacked advance notice, and who possessed little aged whiskey, had to play catch-up when Repeal suddenly came, and they had difficulty competing with the quality of this foreign whiskey. That would be the cause of numerous distilleries shutting down as they were unable to compete.

Prior to Prohibition, in 1918, about 83 million bushels of rye were harvested, though much of the production had shifted more to the west and north. By 1970, that amount had dropped to 37 million bushels. This was also when vodka started to see its rise in popularity which was another strike against rye. In 2007, only 6.3 million bushels of rye were harvested but some positive signs have been seen since then so that in 2013, 7.7 million bushels were harvested, a small increase. Rye is seeing a resurgence, and hopefully it will continue.

We enjoyed two historical cocktails,made with WhistlePig Rye. First was the Julep, which first saw print in 1784, and was originally made with rye. Second was the Old Fashioned, and though its origins are cloudy, it was first recorded in 1881 in Louisville, Both were very satisfying drinks.

There are two main styles of rye: Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Maryland style has a fair percentage of corn in the mashbill so the rye tends to be sweeter and grassier. The Pennsylvania style, also known as Monongahela (named after the river), has a high rye content so tends to be more spicy and earthy. Though both styles still exist, the terms aren't used much by producers, though I actually heard a couple local producers at Thirst Boston use the term Maryland style in describing their own ryes.

Rye is an excellent cover crop, and it grows well even in poor soil. No one makes GMO rye as no one has any interest in doing so. It just isn't a popular or important crop, worthy of GMO. In many respects, it is an ignored grain, which is only making a comeback in recent years. Dave has wanted to make rye whiskey for quite some time, but he couldn't do so while working at Maker's Mark. Then, in 2001, Dave became part of a special team to commemorate George Washington's rye distillery at Mount Vernon. This eventually led in 2007 to the cornerstone being set for a new distillery at Mount Vernon, the cornerstone having been sandstone from the original Capitol. Dave was hired to produce rye whiskey at this distillery, and it is where he learned the craft of rye.

In 2008, the distillery began their commercial run, making a whiskey of 65% rye and 35% corn. Dave noted the difficulty of making a 100% rye, as it must be monitored closely and really can't be left on its own. It is tougher to get to behave, but the keys are temperature and viscosity. Dave stated, "The stills talk to you." He meant that there are usually warning signs before any problems, that certain aspects of production will make strange sounds or motions, indicating something is not right. You thus need to be observant, watchful of the entire process to prevent any problems.  

The recent resurgence in the popularity of rye whiskey is due to a few different factors. First, the cocktail culture often desires authenticity, and when they started researching old cocktail recipes, they found that rye was a main ingredients in many of them. Thus, they started seeking out rye, to make their cocktails true to the historical past. In addition, "taste" became important again, and sourcing of ingredients mattered. There was also a shift from sweet to savory tastes, and rye appeals to that more savory flavor. Rye has become so popular, rising 50% last year, that it is now supply limited, and there might have been an even larger rise if more rye was available. New distilleries have been producing rye to feed this increased demand.

In July 2012, I first encountered WhistlePig Rye, and I was impressed with its taste. Whistlepig was founded in 2006 by Raj Peter Bhakta and he hired David to be his Master Distiller. They released their first product in April 2010. Dave's goal is to make the best rye in the world, a lofty ambition, and he tried to define what that might entail. He states it must be 100% rye, as it is a spicy grain that isn't supposed to be sweet so no corn should be added to it. There is still a need to balance out the rye but that is done through barrel  maturation. To avoid any issues with tannins, it is taken out of the barrel at a certain point and placed into a different barrel, giving a total of 10 years of aging.

The proof, the amount of alcohol, in the rye is very important. The alcohol should carry the taste and not "be" the taste. Dave admitted to a bias for higher proof alcohols, but knows it still needs to be balanced. Whistlepig Rye ended up at 100 proof, though Dave first did some taste testing with consumers to see what they thought about it. The average person thought the proof was lower than what it was, pleasing Dave.

Dave's goal is also to be the most transparent distillery in the world, and as part of that, detailed much about the evolution of Whistlepig, and its troubles with conforming to Vermont's twisty agricultural laws. The goal has always been to create estate rye whiskey, and that dream will become a reality in the new future. For a time, they had to obtain their rye from Canada and have it distilled there as well. However, they have finally overcome all of the hurdles in Vermont so that they can grow their own rye, and distill it on their property. They also plan to create a large visitor's center.

And lastly, Dave mentioned that he has another dream, to produce a Bottled in Bond whiskey one day

"Friday is Rye-day"
--Dave Pickerell

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