Minnesota Rye’s Time to Shine
A partnership between Far North Spirits and the University of Minnesota reveals more to rye than meets the eye. Written by Mike Augustyniak.
Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; Riesling; Pino Grigio. Even people who know nothing about wine have at least heard of these grape varietals.
AC Hazlet; Musketeer; Aroostook; Forsetti. Have you heard of these? If not, you’re not alone; even most whiskey snobs aren’t able to name the strain of rye their favorite beverage is distilled from. Why is that?
Well, if you’re drinking a national brand that buys raw materials from a grain merchant, the answer is: they probably don’t know. But even brands that buy directly from a farmer may not understand how the strain of rye they distill impacts the final product.
In this era of “farm-to-table,” and “grain-to-glass,” shouldn’t they? As consumers, shouldn’t we? Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese, the married co-owners of Far North Spirits in Hallock, MN, thought so, and in 2015, set out to answer those questions.
“To the craft of spirit making it’s expected that you bring a depth of knowledge – that’s the whole point of it being artisanal,” Cheri explained. “We had been growing rye and corn for years, but we hadn’t considered that different varieties might have different flavors. As an industry, when you learn that your largest raw ingredient is something that you know precious little about, it’s sort of like: Okay, we need to up our game here.”
Forging a partnership with the University of Minnesota, on a Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant, Mike, Cheri, and a U of M agronomist named Jochum Wiersma studied 15 varietals of rye. Over several seasons, Wiersma tracked characteristics such as hardiness, yield, and protein content for each varietal; Mike distilled and aged 15 different whiskeys from each strain and facilitated blind taste tests of the final product.
Make no mistake – this was not a study on the impacts of terroir (factors such as soil, topography, and climate); all the rye involved in the taste-test portion of the study was grown within a mile of the distillery, which afforded an equal basis for comparison.
Included as a common check amongst the varietals being studied was AC Hazlet, a strain which Mike has been farming and distilling for years. As the results from the panel of blind taste testers came back Mike “…was pretty convinced that there was something different about what we were using; but that was the white distillate. “After aging in a barrel, I didn’t think those differences would be as pronounced. I thought the barrel would kind of smooth over any subtle differences in flavor that those white distillates have.”
In the end, the results were significant. “My biggest surprise was when we started opening barrels, and then we found out, wow, there’s a significant amount of difference in the flavor,” Swanson told me. “The other surprise [is that] I thought that they would process kind of similarly; and that was absolutely not the case at all. They had really distinct personalities when we were cooking them, and during the ferment, and even during the transfers from the fermenter to the still. Some of them processed really smoothly, and some of them were absolute terrors in that process.”
Bottling some of the best test batches, Far North Spirits created the Seed Vault Series of whiskeys, for public sale statewide. Those first batches sold out, but Mike and Cheri tell me that a new Seed Vault Series will hit stores in 2023; mark your calendars.
By then, Mike and Cheri also hope that Minnesota will be put on the map as the center of the rye universe.
“We were contacted by two fairly large distilling houses, as soon as these [rye study] results went live,” Cheri told me. “If we could get Minnesota farmers getting a better price for a variety of rye that they grow specifically for a big distilling house, and that big distilling house is getting an American-grown grain… that’d be amazing.”
Mark your calendars for that, too.
The full results and methodology of the rye study can be found at https://farnorthspirits.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Far-North-Rye-Study-PDF.pdf