Twenty years ago, rye whiskey was all but dead in the U.S., having long since fallen out of favor. In 2009 Imbibe magazine published a prescient piece titled “The Comeback Kid: Rye Whiskey,” noting the spirit’s current lack of popularity and predicting its imminent return. In the article, a representative for Heaven Hill distillery—which at the time was making three brands of rye, including the now much-beloved Rittenhouse—was quoted as saying, “We spill more bourbon in a day than we sell rye in a year.” Last year the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council announced that sales of rye whiskey had increased 536 percent by volume between 2009 and 2014, prompting a flood of articles declaring that rye was back. Still, the Washington Post reported last year that even after its astronomical sales increase, rye accounted for only 1 percent of all the whiskey sold in the U.S.
Within the niche category of rye whiskey is an even rarer category: malt rye whiskey, which had disappeared entirely in the U.S. until Anchor Distilling introduced Old Potrero single-malt rye whiskey in 1996. As the name implies, the whiskey is made with rye grain that has been malted—sprouted and dried, a process that helps convert the grain’s starches to sugars. (Malt whiskey, on the other hand, is made from malted barley.) There are still only a handful of malt rye whiskeys in the U.S., and one is made just outside the Chicago city limits at Quincy Street, a Riverside distillery that’s been focusing on little-known spirits since it launched in 2012.
Derrick Mancini, the owner of Quincy Street, likes to be first. Last year the distillery released the first straight bourbon made in Illinois in more than 40 years. (“Straight” meaning that the whiskey has been aged in charred new oak barrels for at least two years.) As far as Mancini knows, Quincy Street is the only distillery making a spirit from honey and persimmon; he also makes a spirit distilled from mead—an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey—that he’s using as the base for an absinthe he’s about to release. (He also sells the spirit straight, calling it Prairie Sunshine.) Quincy Street’s “railroad” gin is based on a method described in an 1819 treatise and infuses unaged corn whiskey with botanicals; the dry gin, in a break with recent trends, is flavored only with juniper.
Just before Quincy Street released its straight single-malt rye whiskey, called North American Steamship Rye, in early January, it finished up a limited run of its first straight single-malt whiskey—also, unsurprisingly, probably the only spirit of its type manufactured in Illinois. “There’s a theme here,” Mancini says. But he didn’t make a single-malt rye just to be different; malted rye has a sweeter, rounder flavor than unmalted rye, he says. (The “single” here means that the whiskey has been distilled from just one type of grain—in this case, rye.)
“Rye has a very spicy bite,” Mancini says. “I can drink two-year-old bourbons but I would normally not drink a two-year-old rye—four years is as young as I’d want.” Just as barrel-aging can help tame rye whiskey’s heat, so can malting the rye. As an example, Mancini explains the difference between scotch and Irish whiskey: scotch is made from 100 percent malted barley, while Irish whiskey is traditionally made with a mix of malted and unmalted barley. “Irish whiskey has more bite, it’s got a rougher flavor, because the malting sweetens and softens the flavor,” Mancini says. As a result Irish whiskey is usually triple distilled, which Mancini says gives it a cleaner, sharper flavor.
In the case of Quincy Street’s malt rye whiskey, the malting tames the flavor so much that Mancini has also made a six-month-old version of the spirit—and, in some ways, he prefers it to the two-year-old whiskey he just released and the three-year-old version, which will come out in March. (The release of the two-year-old whiskey was delayed because Quincy Street was changing distributors, which is why the three-year-old one is being released just a couple months later.) “These young whiskey styles, they can get slammed by the traditionalists, but they have flavors you cannot get in the older aged whiskeys,” he says. “With longer aging, some of the flavors you associate with the grain will fade. In particular with the malt rye, the early release has more rye bread sweetness.” As the whiskey ages, he says, its gets “leaner and more sophisticated.”
Picking out what distinguishes the two-year-old malt rye from the three-year-old version is tricky, though. “I can taste the difference, but I’m not sure I like the three-year-old so much better that I want to wait an extra year to age it,” Mancini says. “It’s a tough thing in this business because what a lot of people are hung up on is the age of the whiskey, even if it doesn’t bring much to the quality.” Pappy Van Winkle, he says, is a classic example of people paying for age over quality. “It’s a wheated bourbon, except it’s been aged so long that it’s lost what makes it interesting as a wheated bourbon,” he says. “Not that it’s bad—what you’re tasting is the beautiful barrels they’re using. But I like corn in my corn whiskey. I want to taste it.”
Still, Mancini likes experimenting—”this is what we live and die for”—so he’s got a couple barrels of the malt rye that he intends to age for eight to ten years, just to see what tastes emerge. He’s put them in barrels with very little char on the inside; the younger versions of the malt rye were aged in barrels with a heavier char. The extra charcoal in barrels with heavier char helps reduce harsh flavors in alcohol, Mancini says, which makes the alcohol palatable after a shorter period of time. If you’re planning to age a spirit for a long time, though, it makes sense to put it in barrels with a lighter char to maximize interaction with the wood rather than the charcoal coating the wood.
That’s the theory, anyway. Mancini has learned a lot about how various levels of char and barrel size affect the flavor of the bourbons Quincy Street makes. “We extrapolated that to what we thought might work for the rye—but there’s no way to really know until we do it,” he says. “We’re in the middle of that experiment now.” So far, though, his various projects have worked out pretty well: “I’ve been surprised at how few complete flops we’ve had.” v