*Sincere thanks to Kilbeggan and Savona Communications for the sample.
While the idea of “Irish rye” may sound like the Irish whiskey industry scrambling to cash in on not just its own rising popularity, but that of American rye whiskey as well, it’s actually something of a return to tradition, to a style of Irish whiskey-making last seen over a hundred years ago. I’m sure the cashing in on all that current rye popularity is a welcome and not unexpected byproduct, but my point is Irish whiskey’s return to rye isn’t just some out of the blue idea. There’s actually a little historical precedent that gives it some weight and interest.
Rye has been a minor crop in Ireland for thousands of years. A little casual research indicates that most of that time, rye’s main purpose has been to create hay and thatch. Rye was also used as a cereal grain, but, at least as far back as the 1800’s, it seems that it wasn’t grown in any meaningful quantity for human consumption. Reportedly, Irish Distillers has evidence that John Jameson II, son of Jameson founder John Jameson, used rye in his whiskey recipes, though whether it was used in standard production, or just experimentally isn’t easily established. Irish Distillers has also discussed another Jameson offspring, Andrew, setting up a distillery south of Dublin, and intending to grow rye to be used in whiskey. It seems likely that rye wasn’t necessarily used just for rye’s sake, though. In the 1795, the Crown levied a tax on malted barley. This tax of course helped bring about the distinctly Irish single pot still style which uses both malted and unmalted barley. Distillers found ways to produce their product while using less of the heavily taxed grain. Mostly they used unmalted barley, but they apparently were not against using other grains, corn, oats, and rye, in order to fill out their mash and skirt the tax.
Through the 1800’s, as Irish whiskey’s popularity soared and production practices were streamlined, rye probably fell by the wayside as it was a smaller grain crop to begin with. After Prohibition and the war of Irish independence helped to wipe out Irish whiskey’s popularity, rye was nowhere to be found in the efforts of distillers to revive the style. Today though, with the Irish whiskey category booming, Irish whiskey makers are looking for ways to broaden their product lines and keep things new. One way to keep things new and innovative is to look back at things when they were old and possibly born out of a bit of desperation.
So Irish whiskey companies, both big and small, have begun to dabble with rye once again. Among others, Irish Distillers began planting rye back in 2016, Teeling whiskey began working on an exciting sounding malted rye whiskey in 2018, and Ballykeefe Distillery incorporates rye in their mashbills. Beating them all to the punch, however, was Kilbeggan’s Irish Whiskey Small Batch Rye. The Kilbeggan Distillery was founded in 1757 and is the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland…though that kind of claim should always be accompanied by an asterisk or two. In Kilbeggan’s case, the distillery has occupied the site since its very beginning, and though there have been several ownership changes, it operated continuously from 1757 until the mid 1950’s. While shuttered, a group of Kilbeggan locals (Kilbegganites? Kilbegganeers?) who hated to see their town’s namesake distillery fall into ruin, kept up the site, the equipment, and the license, and turned the place into a museum. That lasted un 1987 when Cooley bought the distillery. It took until 2007 for production to began again at Kilbeggan, and until 2010 for the total renovation to be completed…and that more or less brings us up to date. (If you’d like to read more about the history of Kilbeggan, I got pretty windy about it all in this post here)
The Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey Small Batch Rye is the first whiskey to be wholly distilled and matured at Kilbeggan Distillery since that completed renovation in 2010. The recipe for this one is made up of 30% rye (not sure if its Irish-grown rye) with the remaining 70% being malted and unmalted barley. The rules and regs for Irish single pot still stipulate that to be considered/labeled single pot still, it must be at least 30% malted barley and 30% unmalted barley, with no more than 5% of any other grain. As the rye makes up 30% here, this one cannot be officially called a single pot still. There is no age statement given, but if you’re good at math, you’ll see that this is at the most 8 years old, and probably in the 5-7 year old range.
The Nose: A approachable nose of sweetness and spice. Initially, the sweetness is a little intense, pixie sticks and sweetarts, but it settles down to include floral honey, fresh applesauce, and juicy orange. That green-ish, almost sharp single pot still grain quality comes through nicely and pairs well with the subtle herbal, slightly toasty rye. A bit of cocoa mix, vanilla pudding, and a whiff of cinnamon oatmeal follow. The oak is very mild with spice notes of bright cinnamon, candied ginger, and Meyer lemon peel.
The Palate: A very nice, oily mouthfeel. The palate trades some of that early sweetness from the nose for more strident grain notes. There’s more honey, Demerara sugar, and bruised apple. Much more single pot still grain than I was expecting, more rye, too. Toasty, mineral-y barley and rye, sharp and herbal yes, but with more heft. The rye is peppery and dense, with unsweetened chocolate and sticky vanilla bean. The oak remains rather subdued, but there’s a nice bit of tannic grip. Black pepper, earthy cinnamon, clove, ginger, and faint catch of chocolate mint lead to the finish.
The Finish: Very pleasantly long. Just a bit of honeyed sweetness before a great drawn-out fade of crisp grain and oaky spice.
Thoughts: Really pretty damn good. I enjoyed this more throughout the glass. The nose was nice, had decent complexity and all, but the grain hinted at there sort of explodes on the palate, and by the end of that lingering, moreish finish, I was, as they say, ON BOARD. In theory, my sense was that the single pot still style would work well with rye. They both have an herbal, green-ish, at times mineral side to them that would seem quite complimentary. This whiskey certainly confirms that. It shows off each grain nicely while still managing to integrate it all. There are some young-ish notes here, but for me, nothing that gets in the way. This one certainly holds its own as a sipper, but it also makes for an interesting cocktail when subbed for American rye. For around ~$35, this one is well worth it. Definitely Recommended,
- “Ballykeefe Distillery.” Ballykeefe Distillery, ballykeefedistillery.ie/.
- Doyle, Andy. “Could We See Rye Back in Irish Fields?” Irish Farmers Journal, 7 Dec. 2016, http://www.farmersjournal.ie/could-we-see-rye-back-in-irish-fields-240516.
- “Kilbeggan.” Kilbeggan Distilling Co., http://www.kilbegganwhiskey.com/the-whiskey/.
- “Kilbeggan Distillery.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilbeggan_Distillery.
- Lemon, Peter. “Kilbeggan Single Grain Irish Whiskey – Review.” THE CASKS, 27 Oct. 2017, thecasks.com/2017/10/27/kilbeggan-single-grain-irish-whiskey-review/.
- Olmsted, Larry. “New Irish Whiskey Is Ireland’s First Rye Based Whiskey.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 Nov. 2018, http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2018/11/18/new-irish-whiskey-is-irelands-first-rye-based-whiskey/#6365906321ed.
- Stambor, Zak. “Irish Distiller Kilbeggan Brings Back Rye in a Nod to the Old Days.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 8 Mar. 2019, http://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/drink/sc-food-irish-whiskey-rye-kilbeggan-drink-0308-story.html.
- “Teeling Going Against The Grain with New Crystal Rye Whiskey.” Teeling Whiskey Co., 18 Apr. 2018, teelingwhiskey.com/2018/04/teeling-going-grain-new-crystal-rye-whiskey/.
- Walsh, Siobhan. “Rye Is the Talked about Crop of the Season.” Agriland.ie, 6 July 2018, http://www.agriland.ie/farming-news/sunday-rye-is-the-talked-about-crop-of-the-season/.