Joining the Rye Revival

collage of photos showing dark norther rye field, dark northern rye berries, rye mashing/fermenting, Tom tasting the finished rye whiskey

We wanted to sit down with New Deal founder & distiller, Tom Burkleaux, to find out about our newest release of Distiller’s Reserve Rye Whiskey and how it fits into the broader rye whiskey revival unfolding among US craft distillers over the past decade.

What can you tell us about the production process of the newest rye whiskey release?
Our Distiller’s Reserve Straight Rye Whiskey is a high-rye whiskey made from Dark Northern Rye grown on small farms in Oregon and Washington and milled at Camas Country Mill in Eugene. It was mashed, open-air fermented, & double copper-pot distilled at our distillery in Portland’s Central Eastside during the winter of 2019.
So this is “high-rye” whiskey. How high? What can you tell us about the mash bill for this specific release?
The mash bill for this batch was 72% Dark Northern Rye, 17% Unmalted Barley, 11% Malted Barley. As far as big-brand rye whiskey produced in the US post-prohibition, this is an uncommon mash bill, containing well above the federally mandated 51% rye required to label a whiskey specifically as rye whiskey. And, paired with both malted and unmalted barley–and zero corn–this mash bill gives the whiskey an earthiness and round flavor.
If federal regulations only require 51% rye in a mash bill for a whiskey to be labeled as such, why make a high-rye whiskey?
Good question! The answer requires a little detour in the early history of whiskey production in the US. It used to be, in the 18th and 19th centuries, rye whiskey was by far the most popular whiskey to produce. The Germans and Dutch brought their distilling tradition into present-day Pennsylvania and New York and they were making primarily rye-based spirits. The Dutch were making Genever–a botanical spirit with a rye-neutral base–and the Germans were making a spirit not too far off from modern-day rye whiskey, but with a mash bill that was mostly rye with a little bit of corn and malted barley. The rye varietals they were used to growing in Europe did equally well in the soils of the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern US. The rye whiskey tradition spread throughout the Eastern seaboard. Each region found a rye varietal that especially suited their soils and climates. There were Maryland rye whiskeys, Virginia rye whiskeys, New York rye, Pennsylvania rye, etc. There came to be a terroir of rye whiskey and deviations from the early German & Dutch mash bills became common. Then Prohibition happened and alcohol production decreased dramatically. When FDR led Congress to pass the 21st Amendment in December 1933, officially ending Prohibition, Canadian rye whiskey quickly flooded the US markets. Fun fact: this domination of the rye whiskey market in the US by Canadian distilleries lasted all the way until 2011 when Kentucky Bourbon sales finally surpassed Canadian whiskey sales!
Interesting. But again, why are you wanting to make high-rye whiskey now?
A little over a decade ago, craft distillers in the US–Wigle Whiskey in Pittsburgh, Coppersea Distillery in the Hudson Valley of New York, Catoctin Creek out of North Carolina and Leopold Bros in Denver via Michigan–began what is now seen as the Rye Revival. In various ways, these craft distillers brought back the heritage traditions of rye whiskey production: they’re using heirloom rye varietals; they’ve gone back to high-rye mash bills–with some using 90% rye much like the early German and Dutch distillers; they’ve employed the use of lower proof new-make at barreling. At New Deal, we’d like to offer our own contribution to the modern Rye Revival, in part to bring back this idea that rye whiskey has terroir–something that has been recognized in winemaking for a couple centuries and something that used to be recognized in the US for rye whiskey.
So what about barrel aging for this release? Do aspects of the aging process contribute to the terroir of rye whiskey?
We aged this release in #2 char new American Oak casks in various locations in the Portland Metro area, including here at the distillery. The use of #2 char for rye whiskey allows for a style that leans into the character of the grain. We also slow-proofed in the barrel to capture some of the esters from the Oak cask. Our whiskey matures in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and I’ve been developing a hypothesis that Willamette Valley-aged whiskies have their own character, or, terroir, compared to Kentucky or Scotland-aged whiskies–or, even when compared to rye whiskies aged in other regional US climates.
Can you elaborate a little bit on your hypothesis?
Our climate is different from the cool, wet of Scotland and the hot, humid summers of Kentucky.  June, July, and August are normally the warmest months in Scotland with average maximum temperatures ranging from approximately 59-63 °F. Scotland’s high latitude also means long summer days with extended twilight. Kentucky enjoys four distinct seasons, each with its own virtues. The state has an average annual high of 87°F in summer with very high humidity. But then, their winters are much colder, with an average low of 23°F. We’re warmer than Scotland, so we age faster. And, we don’t have the high humid heat of Kentucky summers.  Without getting into the nitty gritty, I think the year-round moderate temps in Portland combined with dry summer heat nurtures a smoother whiskey, while still exhibiting the boldness of the American style.
What about the “slow-proofing in the barrel” you mentioned? What is it? Did you choose that method to mimic older, heritage rye whiskey aging?
So many questions! Slow-proofing in the barrel would not have been a production method employed in the 18th & 19th centuries. It is a newer technique that a lot of craft distillers are using to capture the delicate water-soluble esters from the oak barrel. Over weeks or months, we add a little water at a time directly to the barrel to lower the proof–rather than draining the alcohol from the barrel and adding water into a tank to lower the proof to bottle-proof. Even though this particular technique is not what rye whiskey distillers were using in the 1700 and 1800s, our slow-proofed whiskeys might have more in common with those heritage whiskies. This is because their white dog spirit was barreled at a much lower proof–around 100-105 proof–than what is common today, which is usually 120-125 proof. There would have been more water in their white dog and so the water-soluble compounds in their barrels would have been captured in the finished spirit in higher quantities than would show up in modern rye whiskies. So, the result of our slow-proofing method is a whiskey with a higher quantity of water-soluble flavors, similar to heritage whiskies first produced in the US.
We know you love to experiment with unconventional and non-traditional mash bills and production methods. What comes next for New Deal as far as rye whiskey production? What are you planning to experiment with next?
Aw, yes, my disdain for following “the rules” is certainly one reason I’ve worked so hard to keep New Deal as an independent distillery. As far as future rye whiskey production, we are working with a farmer outside of Bend who has started growing a hybrid Bono rye. Even though this type of rye is not from heirloom seed, it was originally bred in Germany and is meant for milling and distillation. This rye will also be 100% herbicide free and conserve 50% of the water volumes needed to grow similar crops. Also, the soil and water used will be capturing the terroir of Oregon, which we hope will carry through to our rye whiskey!
And, finally, where can we get our hands on some of this high-rye whiskey?!
You’ll have to come to our distillery and bottle shop in Portland’s Central Eastside to try it–and I know you’ll want to buy a bottle!

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