The impact of small rye grain Part 2

Published by The Whiskey Wash on January 17, 2020 

Patrick van Zuidam
Patrick van Zuidam

Images: Zuidam Distillers and Fred Blans

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.   

An element of taste.

Teff grain 2Zuidam Distillers grow different grains and they look at standard varieties but also at new and old varieties ‘Yes, we do experiment with other grains than Concerto, Odyssey, Laureate and Optic (barley strains). For rye we work with Antoninski and more recently with KWS Sassy. We also look at grains beyond the industry standard ones (rye, corn, wheat and barley). One we are also looking at is Teff, which is also a type of grain that is very popular in Africa. We have to look ahead because solutions never come fast. Most experiments focus on our yield and whatever happens in our mash tuns. So, how much alcohol does it bring me ? Concerto yields 420 ml of alcohol; Golden Promise 285 to 320. That’s why we work closely together with Wageningen University & Research. Those people don’t discuss taste, they talk yield. You know, when the starch increases in your grain, the ratio cuff/starch changes as well. We all know this effects the taste, but which element precisely is due to this effect ?’.

Focus on taste


One type of rye is sown each year by Zuidam Distillers and the focus is always on taste. ‘This year we’ve sown in 27 hectares of rye. I use about 1 kilo of rye per bottle. So most of the grain is not the determining factor. It is not very interesting if my price is 25 cents higher per bottle. When it comes to the cost of the final product I am more concerned with heating costs, working hours, etc. In the end it is the grain that counts, not the price. We are sowing Dankowski right now, a Polish rye. If you do 10 hectares it will yield about 40 tons at the least in a dry season’.

 Terroir philosophy

Of course Zuidam Distillers can argue about taste. But is this the final product they would like to have ? ‘Oh, yes, we’re more than satisfied with the results. But we always aim for the best. I really believe in terroir. And that’s why we want to grow all our own grains within now and five years. We really want to determine our own course and future. It’s more than just a commercial thing; it’s our philosophy. I would like to go one step further than my dear colleague Mark Reynier from Waterford Distillery. He truly believes in recognizing plot A from plot B. With all due respect but it’s more than that, it’s also about the repetitive effect. Terroir should not be a physiological hit. And make no mistake, this is just part of the end product. Other indicators are the mashing, fermentation, distillation and wood maturation. Even the lacto bacillus pressure within the distillery is of importance. What kind of lacto acid bacterium is present in my distillery and what do I allow in my mashbill ? Is there any necessity to sterilize my production area ? And do I really want all those live yeasts ? All the answers to these questions have to do with terroir’.

High gravity mash bill

Distilling a rye mash bill is a tedious job. ‘Those beta glucans are the problem of distilling rye. The proteins thicken the mash and give it a slimy consistency. These properties make it more difficult to mash in rye. We cannot mash in as much grain per 10,000 liter mash as we would if we distill from corn or wheat. That means a less high gravity for the distiller’s beer and more energy and water used per liter of whisky. So a higher cost per liter and less yield per distillation’.

Mash bill

Rogge 3

‘The moment we have 10,000 liters of distiller’s beer we pump it into the fermentation tank. But because of the beta glucans we won’t be able to lauter the rye distillate like we do with malt whisky. Therefore parts of grain will be left behind. All this makes it harder to ferment and distill. And there’s another element that cannot be overlooked.  A malt whisky makes a fluffy foam after fermentation, but when dealing with a rye mash bill – quite a pasty component  – these bubbles are far more harder to ‘break’. So, if the fermentation starts a bit too enthusiastic in our fermenter in our first night, the yeast will work too hard to eat all the sugars present and this creates loads of CO2 that creates bubbles and the chances that the tank will overflow in that case is very real. We solve this problem by rigorously controlling the temperature and keep it low for the first three days; that is below 20 degrees Celsius and turn it up slowly after that. You know, dealing with a rye mash bill is just like having sex: the first time it’s clumsy and you fumble around a lot and you even hit the floor now and then’.

While thinking about this quite interesting metaphor I hear Patrick suggest we should go and see the new barrel storage.