Images: Zuidam Distillers and Fred Blans
Published by The Whiskey Wash on January 17, 2020
Both Canadian and American history have known rye dominated mash bills for quite some time. One of the experts that is consulted on a regular basis in Europe by Scottish distillers is Patrick van Zuidam (Zuidam Distillers BV) from The Netherlands.
‘It’s the world upside down’, Patrick says. ‘Rye whisky is being made by say about seven Scottish distillers right now. This was unheard of 10 years ago’. At the location of Zuidam’s new planned distillery 42 hectares (103 acres) of grain is grown for the production of whisky and genever. Due to the dry weather the yield of our rye harvest was great last year, which sounds strange. A lot of farmers are very willing to grow barley, rye or corn after they have grown potatoes and sugar beets. Grass is not very profitable. Rye has always been grown in Holland because it is an easy grain to grow with very low requirement concerning nutrients, water and other variables. So, it was perfect to grow where other crops struggled on some of the poor sandy soils we have around parts of Holland. But rye is an old-fashioned grain and grows to 4-foot-high which makes it an unpredictable grain to grow because wind could easily blow it over and that ruins the crop’.
Patrick picks a bottle of Millstone 100 Rye from the shelf. ‘This is a 100% rye mashbill I made 12 years ago. Is this the best rye whisky I ever made so far? No, I don’t think so; that will be the whisky I barreled yesterday. Eagerness and perseverance is what you need when you want progress in any field. It’s hard to put your finger on every element along the line of whisky making. It is definitely science, but it also takes experience and something difficult to quantify, call it a touch’.
Rye got itself a bad name throughout the ages. It is sensitive to contamination called ergot. Ergot of rye is a plant disease that is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. The fungus produces many complex compounds including poisonous alkaloids and hallucinogens like LSD which affect the nervous system causing convulsive symptoms and hallucinations in people. These unknown symptoms may have been the source of accusations of bewitchment that spurred the Salem witch trials in the 17th century. These days this is not a concern anymore because all the grain grown are constantly monitored for all kinds of compounds including pesticides and mycotoxins from fungi. ‘We are in the middle of the food industry and therefore the grains we work with are meticulously checked on pesticides and micro toxins. Grain varieties that we grow are selected for flavor but also for resistance to lodging and wet conditions. We work with grains that are resistant to wet circumstances. For us this is far more important than yield. Growing conditions influenced the yield of 2018. It was extremely dry early in the season and we had a dramatic yield of 4 to 4.5 tons per hectare (2.5 acres). But the flavor though was awesome and super concentrated. This year we’re back on our average level of 6 tons’.
Patrick continues. ‘A top quality end product requires top quality grains. This has to do with terroir, a subject heavily debated in the whisky industry. I really believe that the taste of my whisky can directly be traced back to the type and variety of grain you use and the way you grow your grain. The example was there last year: a low yield and a small grain resulted in a powerful taste that was unbelievably concentrated and intense. The impact on the taste in my spirit was dramatic, almost beyond believe. Now, it is interesting for us to find out how to manage this process and influence taste. Do we plant our grains more closely together or do we have to alter our way of fertilizing?’ Zuidam Distillers only started growing its own grain 5 years ago and is closely examining the elements that influence the growth of their grains. All aspects are taken into account: fertilization, seeding density, soil composition or humidity factors. ‘More and more farmers use GPS (Global Positioning System) to influence their actions. What we are learning now is how we can grow small grains and keep this intense taste.
‘Terroir does exist in distilling; it’s is undebatable for me. The challenge lies in separating true terroir from other factors that influence the flavor of the whisky. Terroir for me should be repeatable year after year. It is unique to our soil and stands out from the chance of environmental influences that affects our crops year after year like the amount of rain and sunshine. Simply saying that the grain for this plot tastes differently from the grain from that plot does not prove terroir for me. It should be a quality of the grain from that plot has every year. A further complicating factor is the influences in the rest of the distilling process. Of course our yeast does influence the taste during fermentation. And also the temperature at which I mash in my grain, fermentation temperature, rate of distillation (speed), cut points, cask filling strength, cask type, etc. Most of those we control rigorously.’