Resurgence of rye in Scotch whisky - why this ancient grain is making a comeback

It’s something usually associated with American whiskey, but rye is making a comeback in distilling in Scotland. Rosalind Erskine finds out why, and what impact it’s having on whisky making here.

For those who have been keeping a keen eye on the whisky industry, and developments therein, the resurgence of rye won’t come as much of a surprise. But it did to the initial distillers who, as whisky author Dave Broom noted in 2017, had no idea the other was making moves into using this ancient grain.

Inchdairnie, Bruichladdich, Diageo, Arbikie and BrewDog Distilling have all been experimenting with rye, with some of those endeavours now making their way to market. In November 2017, Bruichladdich on Islay and Fife’s InchDairnie distillery started their rye distillations to create what was thought to be the first commercial pot still rye spirits made in Scotland for more than 200 years.

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The following year, Arbikie distillery, located on the north east coast, released its Highland Rye single grain Scotch whisky and have since gone on to release Highland Rye 1794. Arbikie’s original Highland Rye Single Grain Scotch Whisky was laid down in 2015 and used a combination of Arantes rye, Odyssey malted barley and Viscount wheat. Then, in 2019, William Grant & Sons released a single grain whisky from Kininvie Distillery, which contained rye.

Allan Logan, Bruichladdich Distillery production director (left), samples a glass of The Regeneration Project with farmer Andrew Jones. Picture: Bruichladdich DistilleryAllan Logan, Bruichladdich Distillery production director (left), samples a glass of The Regeneration Project with farmer Andrew Jones. Picture: Bruichladdich Distillery
Allan Logan, Bruichladdich Distillery production director (left), samples a glass of The Regeneration Project with farmer Andrew Jones. Picture: Bruichladdich Distillery

Diegeo, after experimentation at their Leven plant, released Johnnie Walker High Rye in late 2021. More recently, InchDairnie’s Ryelaw – named for a nearby farm – and Bruichladdich’s Regeneration Project’s third bottling, a rye single grain whisky, were both released within a month of each other this year. It all means rye is well and truly back in vogue.

History of rye in distilling

In distilling in Scotland, rye was used in as far back as the 18th century and continued in mixed mashes and in column stills until the end of the 19th century. In Alfred Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (from the 1880s), it was noted some distilleries, including Port Dundas, had stores of rye for use in whisky making. There were more historical records of rye in whisky in the 1908 Royal Commission with distillers, including DCL – which would become Diageo – using rye. William Ross, managing director of DCL, told the commission they used barley, maize, rye and oats, with barley making up about 30 per cent of the whole.

Rye then fell out of favour as it doesn’t have a huge yield and it is famously known for being difficult to distil. It can turn glue-like during the mash or foam far too much during fermentation. It is still widely grown in the UK, with a lot of it going into the food industry and some for beer. For the distilleries that are now bringing it back, it has taken a huge amount of research and development.

Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie, said: “There was an economic argument to not using rye, but we’re prepared to give way to economics if the flavour is good. We chose rye because of its flavour. For me, a lot of the flavours which other distillers are working with have been wood-driven, particularly through finishing.

"We want to show that the flavours produced in distilling are as interesting as flavours of maturation. Therefore, rye was an obvious one to try.” Mr Palmer’s distillery, which has been set up for experimentation, has also distilled using oats and is one to watch for some interesting releases.

Why rye?

Given the challenges faced in distilling rye, it’s a fair question to ask why companies are using it. For Bruichladdich, it’s an environmental aspect.

In 2016, the team started their regeneration project when Bruichladdich’s production director Allan Logan and long-standing farming partner Andrew Jones had a conversation on how crop rotation could be beneficial for land at Coull Farm. Keen to combat the growing cost of agro-chemicals, avoid monoculture, reduce input and diversify his crops, Mr Jones decided to add rye to his rotation.

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Rye has the ability to sequester excess soil nitrate and its fibrous root system increases soil drainage, helping to conserve moisture. Not only does this improve soil health, but it reduces costs for the farmer by being less reliant on artificial pesticides and fertilisers.

The addition of rye didn’t exactly yield the best results. The first yield was expected to be 17 tons, but thanks to Islay’s inclement weather – strong wind and torrential rain – it meant only 13 tons of grain was usable.

But they persevered, with Bruchlalddich agreeing to purchase Mr Jones’s entire crop. Earlier this year, the Islay distillery unveiled The Regeneration Project, the third release in the Bruichladdich Project series. It is a rye single grain whisky, the first, they say, from Islay. Douglas Taylor, chief executive at Bruichladdich Distillery, further explained the use of rye, saying: “As a whisky distillery we are accountable for our impact from the ground up, and that starts with understanding where our essential raw ingredients come from, and how they are grown.

"We learned that rye is a hugely beneficial rotational crop, which not only reduces the need for artificial input, but improves soil health and structure, which matters.

"But with no market for Scottish grown rye, it begs the question – why would a farmer grow it? Well, we could buy it – and create a delicious whisky, all while supporting our vital farming partners, helping the environment and promoting soil health. Pursuing flavour while reducing our impact, The Regeneration Project is the start of something much bigger than whisky.”

Adam Hannett, head distiller at Bruichladdich, added: “The actual thinking behind The Regeneration Project goes beyond whisky alone. Yes, it’s an incredible liquid. But it’s also about the regeneration of the soil, reducing input on the farm, looking after the land and the environment, and supporting our farming partners on Islay. It’s a project which really starts to get you thinking about the whisky and how it’s been made.”

Arbikie’s ethos is field to bottle, so for them it made sense to distil using an ‘authentic’ and ancient grain to produce, they say, a spirit with a sense of place. At the time of launching their Highland rye, John Stirling, director of Arbikie Highland Estatem said: “Records show a distillery at Arbikie in 1794 – a time when they would have only used crops grown on the family farm.

"We’re bringing this tradition back to Scotch whisky with provenance, terroir and traceability of ingredients at the heart of everything we do. Growing rye requires long periods of dry weather, which can be challenging. However, our farm team has done an excellent job.

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"Whatever we’ve produced over the years, from potatoes to vodka, our values of sustainability, innovation and quality have been the foundation, and our Highland Rye Whisky embodies everything our family has been doing since we started farming 400 years ago.”

Arbikie master distiller Kirsty Black said: “We’ve been working on our Highland Rye for years and it has posed some challenges from a growing and distillation point of view. The flavour profile is orange marmalade, cloves and maple syrup. The main differences between our Highland Rye and American Rye is that traditionally American rye uses corn in their mash bill, and usually malted rye. At Arbikie we have used unmalted rye, malted barley and wheat. The ageing process is also significantly different due to temperatures in the US and Scotland respectively.”

Over in Fife at InchDairnie, Mr Palmer said they had released their rye single grain whisky, Ryelaw, now as they feel the quality matches their exacting standards. He said: "While we are rooted in Scotch whisky tradition, we have explored what is possible when agriculture meets industry and innovative technologies combine with methodology, to create a superb rye whisky that is sure to excite palates.”

Distillery manager Scott Sneddon added: "The rye spiciness with vanilla, sweet biscuit cereal and dried fruit notes seem much more defined than rye whiskeys from America we’ve compared it to. There’s a richer, more luxurious mouthfeel and great balance, which are certainly helped by the favourable maturation conditions we have in Fife compared to Kentucky. The use of malted rye in the mash means we have a softer, more sippable style of rye whisky. We look forward to hearing if our American cousins agree.”

As the industry continues to boom, and with many new distilleries opening or reopening, it’s an exciting time for experimentation and unusual releases of which rye – and oats – appear to just be the beginning. This begs the question, what will be next? Mr Hannett gave a glimpse of future plans for Bruichladdich, saying: “We’re always in pursuit of exceptional flavour and aren’t afraid of pushing the boundaries when it comes to whisky making. We’ve got a diverse and exciting barley growing programme, which is always evolving.

"We currently work with a range of farmers who grow different barley varietals for us, including organic barley, locally grown Islay barley, the ancient varietal Bere barley, and biodynamic barley grown on a carbon-negative farm in Wiltshire, and the latest rye release has shown that we still have more to explore. Watch this space.”



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