Make Way for Australian Rye Whiskey

Stu Whytcross stands in the dusty stockyard of a dying Australian farm in southwest New South Wales, Australia, a six-and-a-half-hour drive west of Sydney, where the lush farmland of the east coast gives way to the arid interior—or what Aussies call the Outback. He’s there for a clearance auction, the last chance for a destitute farmer to sell what little remains of the family legacy; he bids unopposed on a bag of scrappy, irregular seed rye that would end up supplying the makers of the world’s best rye whiskey.

Whytcross works for the boutique malt house Voyager, which, in addition to its work researching and developing new and heritage grain varieties, buys grains from local farmers and processes them for craft breweries and distilleries. That bag of rye would be propagated and replanted—first in a greenhouse, then a garden plot, and finally to several paddocks—before being harvested and sold to Sydney’s Archie Rose Distilling Co. for its Sandigo Heritage Rye Malt Whisky.

“We’re not even sure of the variety of the rye that was in that bag,” says Whytcross, “but the farmer had been growing it for the past 60 years and replanting the same seed, so it would have changed and evolved in response to its environment.” Whytcross thinks the unique character of Australian rye comes from the land. “The varieties we have here, like Bevy and Vampire, tend to grow in the hot and dry marginal farming areas where it survives better than wheat and barley,” he says. “We get quite a small grain size and yields aren’t massive. But that’s how you get intensity of flavor.”

The concentrated earthy, spicy funk that results from the grain struggling in this drought-hardened land—that defines Australian rye.

Historically, Australia hasn’t had much of a market for locally grown rye, which is used mostly as a hay crop in marginal farmland or exhausted soils. The lack of demand means there hasn’t been a lot of selective breeding for increased yield. “With barley, there’s been 50 to 100 new varieties over my lifetime developed for yield and tolerance,” explains Whytcross. “But a lot of that has been at the sacrifice of flavor and aroma. With rye, most farmers are still planting 60-year-old strains that haven’t had the flavor bred out of them.”

It’s that grain character—the concentrated earthy, spicy funk that results from the grain struggling in this drought-hardened land—that defines Australian rye. And it’s not like anything you’ll find in the United States or Canada. “Rye grown in a dry climate is cereal-forward, unlike most American rye,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, co-founder of Melbourne rye distillery The Gospel. “A lot of American ryes drink like a bourbon with a bit of rye spice. Ours drinks like liquid rye bread.”

In 2020, Archie Rose was awarded World’s Best Rye at the World Whiskies Awards for the distillery’s Rye Malt Whisky, a sort of hybrid rye/single malt that’s both delicious and entirely Australian. Archie Rose, like most Australian rye, is made using techniques learned from single malt Scotch: malting the grains, double-distilling in copper pots and often employing ex-bourbon or ex-wine casks for maturation. “We aim to make something distinctly Australian,” says Dave Withers, master distiller at Archie Rose. “It doesn’t have much to do with the American way of doing things.”

Peter Bignell of Tasmania’s Belgrove Distillery was the first to produce a 100 percent Australian rye, back in 2010, four years before Archie Rose’s first still run. An engineer, farmer, artist and environmentalist, Bignell’s work is perhaps the epitome of grain-to-glass Australian distilling. His whiskey came about in a decidedly pre-industrial fashion, when one year he ended up with a bumper crop of the rye he was growing to feed the sheep on his family farm. Putting his skills to use, he built his own 500-liter (132-gallon) copper pot still, retrofitted a commercial tumble dryer into a malting kiln, and fired them up with biodiesel he makes from discarded deep-fryer oil from the truck stop up the road.

Belgrove rye is deeply earthy and incredibly rich in grain character, like wild rice cooked in bone broth and eaten with a well-worn wooden spoon. It’s as strange and complex and Australian as Bignell himself.

Australian Rye Whisky

“We aim to make something distinctly Australian,” says Dave Withers, master distiller at Archie Rose. “It doesn’t have much to do with the American way of doing things.” | Photo: Dominic Loneragan

Along with Archie Rose, The Gospel and Belgrove, other Australian ryes, such as Backwoods and Tiger Snake, are each contributing to what is becoming a unique regional character, despite the distilleries’ wildly different approaches to production. This commonality is much harder to find among other Aussie whiskey styles. For context, the vast majority of Australian whiskey is produced from malted barley that’s double-distilled to make single malt. Rye was always an afterthought—a distant foreign cousin to the malts Australians know and love. But for a nation struggling to define itself in a world awash with craft whiskeys, rye, despite its indelible links to North America, offers perhaps the best example of a truly Australian whiskey.

It’s a big part of the reason The Gospel wanted to make rye in the first place. Tucked in the light industrial backstreets of Melbourne’s inner suburb of Brunswick, the brand stays much closer to American production methods than most, using unmalted rye and maturing in charred new oak. Despite the similarities to traditional American rye, The Gospel tastes fundamentally different. “Our rye is very grain-forward, with a bright fruit character that you don’t often see in American rye,” says Fitzgerald. “It tastes like the Australian countryside.”

Part of Fitzgerald’s interest in making rye in Australia is based on practicality. Whytcross neatly sums up the logic: “Compared to corn, wheat and barley, it’s better for the farmers, better for the soils and better for the environment. It needs less water and less nitrogen-based fertilizer, which causes a huge amount of CO2 emissions and runs off into our fragile river systems. It also has deeper roots, so it even helps to regenerate tapped-out soils.” 

As craft whiskey producers in Australia, and across the world, seek ways to differentiate themselves from established brands, terroir is becoming an increasingly important factor. Hyperlocal yeast strains, unique microclimates and heritage grains like the ones used to make Australian rye have become a staple of the craft whiskey playbook. From Bruichladdich’s “Islay Barley” single malt Scotch, made entirely with local barley, to Balcones’ Baby Blue corn whiskey, made in Texas with heritage blue maize, these grains and where they are grown are writing a new chapter in the craft whiskey story.

Australian rye, with its scrappy varieties, resilience, genetic diversity and intense cereal flavor, is emerging as the country’s most singular spirit. As Fitzgerald says, “Making rye is the closest we can get to taking the flavor of an Outback Australian farm to the world.”

The Gospel Rye is available in the U.S. directly from the distillery’s website, shipping to 40 states. Belgrove can sometimes be found in boutique bottle shops. Archie Rose is currently not available in the U.S., but as one of Australia’s biggest modern distilleries, don’t be surprised to see it stateside in coming years.

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